If you’ve ever had sore shins after starting a running program, or if they crept up on you when you increased your mileage or added more intense exercises, you’ve probably had shin splints. This injury isn’t usually serious, but it can be frustrating if it doesn’t resolve quickly.
Pain in the shins can mean a few different things, and you may need a professional’s help to figure out exactly what is wrong and what to do about it. A physical therapist specializing in sports medicine would be a good place to start, or you can ask your regular doctor about it if you have one.
That said, many people (including myself) would rather try to manage a condition like this on our own or with the help of a coach before seeking medical advice. If you go this route, just don’t be stupid about it — conditions like stress fractures and compartment syndrome can start as shin pain. So if the pain feels severe or if it gets worse and not better, go ahead and call the doc.
What causes shin splints?
Shin splints, especially the form known as medial tibial stress syndrome, tend to occur in people who do a lot of running and jumping. They tend to happen at the beginning of a training plan or at a time when you’re increasing the amount or intensity of your training. So a person who has just started couch to 5K might be at risk of getting them; so might a basketball player who just joined a new team and is practicing twice as often as before.
In runners, things that may contribute to shin splints — and ways to mitigate those risks — include:
- increases in mileage or intensity (ramp up slower)
- wearing the wrong shoes for you (choose a different pair)
- running only on pavement (run on trails or grass if you can)
- tight calf or shin muscles (stretching, massage, or foam rolling may help)
- weak calf or shin muscles (strength train!)
What to do when your shins start to hurt
Inflammation may be part of what’s happening in your shins, so if the shin splints are new, see if ice and anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen) help it feel a little better.
Reducing the amount of running or jumping that you do may help, especially if you recently increased it. Back off a bit on your mileage, and maybe replace some of your hill sprints or speedwork with easy runs.
Strength training exercises may help, and they’re a cornerstone of many physical therapists’ approach to shin splint rehab. One exercise that a Gizmodo writer called “magical” is the elevated toe raise:
- Stand on the edge of a step (hold onto the railing) with just your heels on the step.
- Lower your toes as far as you can, and then raise them up repeatedly for 30 seconds.
- Then bend your knees into a half-squat and do the exercise for another 30 seconds.
You can also do this exercise without the step, just standing on a flat floor. Another exercise that works your toe-raising muscles is simply walking around on your heels, toes in the air. These muscles attach to the front of your shin, and strengthening them may help make the shin pain go away.
(As an aside, I once had a similar pain in my forearms after several weeks of doing nail bending and other forearm-heavy exercises, and it just wouldn’t go away. I learned that people in the grip training world talk about “forearm splints,” and they swear by wrist curls to rehab it. The motion is the same idea as a toe raise, but you do it with your hands instead of your feet, and hold an appropriately challenging dumbbell in your hand. The more of these I did, the better my forearms felt. I don’t think calling them “magical” is an exaggeration.)
As you’re waiting for the strengthening exercises to take effect, go back to the list of shin splint risk factors and see how many of them you can adjust. Can you reduce your mileage and run some of it on soft surfaces? Could you do some foam rolling before and after your runs? Did you get new shoes recently, and can you switch back to the old models? On the flip side, are your shoes maybe very old, and could you use a new pair with more support and cushioning? Find what combination works for you, and you’ll help get your shin splints under control.