In this article, you’ll learn how to prevent shin splints – even though it’s a tricky injury to treat.
For a coach, shin splints are the most frustrating injury because there’s no definitive cause, treatment, or method of prevention.
I previously suffered from shin splints for months so I know how debilitating they can be.
If you have never had shin splints or are unfamiliar with them, consider yourself lucky! Pain from shin splints can be felt in both the front, outer (anterior) portion of your shin, or on the medial portion on the inner side of your leg. Medial shin splints are far more common.
Pain can progress from a mild ache felt only when running to a throbbing, burning pain that is noticeable even at rest.
The worst part? The most common shin splint treatment – what most runners think works – is completely ineffective.
Many runners assume that they need to strengthen their shin muscle, typically the tibialis anterior. Exercise bands are commonly used for this, but in reality trying to strengthen the shin muscle is a waste of time.
This treatment strategy is a myth because the role of the tibialis anterior isn’t shock absorption. Instead, it assists in ankle dorsiflexion, meaning it helps you flex your toes back towards your knee. So strengthening your tibialis anterior may make you better at dorsiflexion, but it won’t make your shin splints go away!
It’s time to let go of the notion that you have shin splints because your shin muscle is weak. You probably have shin splints from training mistakes or other external factors that can be fixed with a better structured training program.
I invited Mike Young to share his expertise on how runners can prevent shin splints with the SR audience today. Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology, an MS in Coaching Science, and a PhD in Biomechanics. He also has certifications from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Track & Field, and USA Weightlifting.
Mike is also the founder and Director of Sport Performance for Athletic Lab where he serves as the strength and speed coach and the main biomechanist for the facility.
As a world-renowned expert in speed and strength development – and someone who has worked extensively with professional athletes – I’m particularly interested in Mike’s thoughts on the murky prevention and treatment protocols for shin splints.
Shin Splints: What Causes them?
If weak shin muscles don’t cause shin splints, what does? It might surprise some runners to learn that the shin bone (or Tibia) actually bends during the stance phase of the running gait. Just like a mighty oak tree sways in the wind, your bones are meant to absorb impact and the best way to do that is to bend slightly.
In healthy runners, this poses no problems at all. In fact, this process makes the shins stronger and better able to withstand heavy training, which is the primary reason that shin splints usually affect beginner runners rather than veterans.
With extra impact forces on the tibia from running, new runners should actively work to reduce those impact forces. One of the best ways to do that is to increase cadence (or step rate) to at least 170 steps per minute, but ideally closer to 180. This one simple form upgrade reduces over-striding, aggressive heel-striking, and reduces impact on the tibia.
For more on how to run properly, check out this in-depth guide to running form here.
Instead of directly focusing on the shin muscles, it’s more productive to address the way you train. Mike has this to say:
There are four top causes for shin splits. The first is changing shoe types, where I most frequently see shin splints occur when transitioning to ‘competition’ shoes, whether spikes or flats.
The next problem is failing to change shoes when necessary. Sometimes people wear their shoes well beyond their life cycle which can lead to problems.
Next is running surfaces: I’ve found grass and trails can be useful both because they are so much softer but also the fact that they are irregular is likely to reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries.
Finally, I’ve seen people get shin splits when mileage or intensity increase dramatically. The body simply doesn’t have time to adapt to the greater training load and the weakest link is the first to break… for many people that’s the shins. One of the most overlooked ways that intensity increases is downhill running. Downhill running dramatically increases the impact forces at contact.
As any runner with shin splints intimately knows, running through this injury can be excruciating. It’s critical to know how to differentiate between “normal” soreness and a potential stress fracture or exertional compartment syndrome – both of which are serious injuries.
Mike explains that after about a day, “normal” soreness should progressively improve. But there are outliers:
With more chronic soreness the pain often subsides much more slowly. This is especially true with shin splints which are inflammatory in nature.
Other than perhaps in very beginners, pain in the shins is not a normal outcome of running and certainly not to be considered the same as muscle soreness from a hard training session.
If you’re a beginner or just getting back to running after time off, it’s critical to manage shin pain early, aggressively, and thoughtfully. Successful treatment strategies will be those that address the cause of the injury.
How to Treat & Prevent Shin Splints
Now that we understand the many causes of the injury, we can outline a simple framework for how to prevent shin splints:
- Change shoe types from cushioned to minimalist trainers or racing flats gradually and carefully.
- Don’t run in old shoes! (you can check out all of SR’s running shoe reviews here)
- Vary your running surfaces and include softer surfaces whenever possible. These include dirt trails, cinder walking paths, grass, and even technical trails.
- Mileage, intensity (fast running), and even downhill running should all be increased slowly over months and years – not days and weeks
These prevention strategies are also helpful for treatment. If you currently suffer from shin splints, you can simply adopt these updates to your training and should start seeing results in a few days or weeks. Remember that a reduction in mileage and intensity is also needed if your shin splints are moderate to severe.
But even with these training upgrades, Mike concedes that there are no quick fixes:
The standard rest and ice do seem to help…at least with pain reduction. NSAIDs can help with pain but those might be a short term gain for a long term loss as NSAIDs may disrupt the healing process.
In some athletes I’ve had success with soft tissue release either manually via foam rolling or through a therapist of the shin bones and feet although results are inconsistent.
I want to strongly agree that NSAIDs can help with pain (ibuprofen, for example, is very effective at pain management) but several studies indicate they blunt the body’s natural healing and recovery mechanisms. It’s more effective to ice for 15 minutes after running, using an ice cup, instead of taking medication.
Additionally, I’ll add that strengthening the hip abductors can be an effective shin splint treatment in addition to these training changes. Researchers from Belgium published a recent study indicating that those with weak hip abductors were more likely to suffer from shin splints.
My Injury Prevention for Runners clients know that hip strength is vital for the prevention of many running injuries from Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome to IT Band Syndrome – and the exercises in the program focus on hip strength as a foundational prevention measure.
Well-Rounded Shin Splint Prevention
As long-time Strength Running readers know, I take a well-rounded approach to injury prevention. Whenever a coach offers one quick fix for an injury, you should know it’s likely ineffective.
Instead, focus on three core components of prevention to be more successful:
- Improved running form
- Runner-specific strength exercises
- Smarter training (how to increase mileage and intensity, pattern workouts during the week, lifestyle changes, and variety)
There are no quick fixes with running, but there are easy to implement strategies that work extremely well in the long-term. You can see examples of runners whom I’ve helped get healthy who thought they were destined to be on the hamster wheel of injuries forever.
But more importantly, understand that preventing shin splints requires multiple changes to how you run. You likely won’t see significant relief if you only update your running shoes or start running more trails.
A well-rounded approach to injury prevention includes a more systematic, step-by-step way of staying healthy. And not only is it more effective, but a nice side effect is that you’ll become a much more consistent runner who’s probably a lot faster!
I cover many of these step-by-step strategies in my free email course on injury prevention, which you can get here.
Thanks again to Mike Young for contributing to this article! And good luck with your shin splints!