How to Prevent Shin Splints When Running

Sport & Activity

Shin pain or tenderness can be an indication of shin splints, which can mess with your running performance. Don't let it. Follow these preventive tips.

Last updated: 19 May 2022
6 min read
How to Prevent Shin Splints When Running

Shin splints, also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, is an overuse injury. This injury is located in the tibia, which runs along the front of the lower leg. Depending on the severity, you may feel achiness, tenderness or pain. It's estimated that shin splints affect 10.7 to 16.8 percent of runners, with women being at a two to three times higher risk.

What Causes Shin Splints?

Shin splints are caused by repeated impact on the tibia when you're running on hard surfaces. Each time your foot hits the ground when you run, your lower body absorbs the impact. That's what makes running a high-impact activity.

Part of the responsibility of the shin bone is to absorb and dissipate the impact. Per mile, you strike the ground almost 1,000 times. That's a lot of impact!

With the correct foot strike, running form and running shoes, this isn't an issue. In fact, research shows running has a protective effect on the joint. For example, a study published by the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found that running can improve hip or knee joint health.

So why do so many runners experience the pain of shin splints? It's due, in part, to overuse. The more mileage you rack up, the more at risk you are. The constant, repetitive shocks can wear on the tibia. That's why studies show that marathon runners have a higher occurrence of shin splints.

Even if you're running for distance, running too frequently can lead to shin splints. You're not giving the bone a chance to recover. If left untreated, this can lead to a tibial stress fracture and more pain.

Muscle imbalances or weaknesses in the lower body like tight quads or weak hips can increase your risk of shin splints. This shifts too much stress and responsibility on the shin bone to disperse the impact of the foot hitting the ground.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a link between runners with shin splints and weak hip muscles. In fact, the researchers concluded that hip strength tests should be used as a screening tool for the risk of shin splints.

Your foot strike also affects your likelihood of developing shin splints. Overpronation and heel striking are linked to shin splints.

Among heel strikers, the toe lifting (dorsiflexion) at touchdown causes the soft tissue surrounding the tibia to get strained. Similarly, overpronation—an excessive inward roll of the foot and the flattening of the arch upon impact—also places stress on the medial structures of the leg. This results in micro-tears and inflammation in the soft tissue. Both foot strikes increase the risk of shin splints.

How to Prevent Shin Splints

  1. 1.Increase Mileage Slowly

    Experienced runners are less susceptible to shin splints. That's because their tibialis anterior muscles are stronger and better able to handle the strain of running. Beginner runners are more prone to the condition because their muscles are weaker and haven't been exposed to the training stimuli before.

    To counter this, slowly increase your mileage if you're a newbie or you're returning from a hiatus or injury. The 10 percent rule involves increasing your mileage in increments of 10 percent. That's running half a kilometre further once you've mastered the 5K.

  2. 2.Always Warm Up

    Failing to warm up before exercise can increase your risk of injury. Your muscles won't be warm or loose, and thus potentially not ready for the impact.

    Many people have tight glute muscles from sitting down at a desk all day. Warming up and stretching the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calf muscles prior to a run can help these muscles to absorb and disperse impact evenly. This helps prevent the shin from overworking and inevitable shin splints and pain.

    Start by walking on a treadmill or jogging on the spot. Try out these dynamic warm-up stretches:

    Calf Raises

    • Start by standing on a step in an upright position with your feet hip-width apart.
    • With your heels on the edge of the step, raise your heels upwards until you are on your toes.
    • Slowly lower.
    • Repeat 10–15 times.

    Bodyweight Squats

    • Start by standing on a step in an upright position with your feet hip-width apart.
    • Squat down, with your glutes drawing backwards as if you are sitting on a chair.
    • Keep your spine neutral and chest facing forwards and upright.
    • Go back to standing.
    • Repeat 15–20 times.

    Toe Lunge Walk

    • Start by standing upright, with your feet hip-width apart.
    • Lunge forwards with your left leg, landing on the toes of your left foot.
    • Lunge down.
    • Keep your toes on the right foot curled under.
    • Step forwards with your right leg and repeat the exercise.
    • Walk forwards as you lunge, alternating legs each time.
    • Repeat 15–20 times.
  3. 3.Schedule Runs Properly

    If you are preparing for a race and want to start training more frequently, make sure you pay attention to your scheduling. For example, long runs five days a week won't allow for enough recovery. This can lead to inflammation, symptoms of overtraining such as fatigue, and shin splints.

    Leave at least a day between runs and ensure proper recovery. If your shins hurt, skip a run in favour of recovery to avoid more serious conditions such as iliotibial band syndrome, patellar tendonitis or stress fractures.

    Here are some recovery tips:

    • Wear compression socks during and after your run to encourage blood flow to aid recovery.
    • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet to regulate inflammation and accelerate the recovery time.
    • Stay hydrated.
    • Sleep 7–9 hours.
    • Recovery can be active. You can cross-train on the days you aren't running. This can help to strengthen key muscles to prevent imbalances or weakness.
  4. 4.Incorporate Cross-training

    Muscle imbalances and weaknesses can lead to shin splints. Pinpoint any imbalances you may have by working with a physiotherapist or healthcare professional. Then work on these by incorporating strength training, callisthenics, yoga and other types of exercise a couple of times a week.

  5. 5.Wear the Correct Footwear

    Wearing the correct running shoes is vital to prevent shin splints. This is particularly essential for people who:

    • Overpronate
    • Are overcoming an injury
    • Heelstrike
    • Have a high running mileage
    • Run frequently

    Look for running shoes with cushioning and arch support to help with shock absorption. The right type of running shoe can help you avoid shin splints, especially if they're cushioned with good shock absorption.

  6. 6.Focus on Form

    Knee pain, shin splint pain and tibia-related injuries can be an indicator that your running technique needs adjusting. Here are a couple of common errors:

    • Heel striking
    • Excessive foot dorsiflexion
    • Overstriding
    • Toe push-off

    With the right form, the right training programme and the right running shoe, you can reduce your chances of shin splints and improve your running performance.

Originally published: 23 December 2021