Shin splints: how to treat and prevent this common injury now that we're running more

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Are you trying to give your workout routine a final push before the end of the year? 2020 was the year for running, after all, so it could be fun to test the skills you’ve picked up during a year with limited access to gyms and studios. But be careful how hard you go, as most running injuries are a result of overuse.

One of the most common of those injuries is shin splints, medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome. If you’ve ever felt a dull ache or pain along the inside of your tibia, the bone in your lower leg, when exercising or even resting, you may have experienced it yourself. “Your shin area may also feel tender to the touch and when massaging the area, you may feel knotted or tight muscles,” explains Alex Parren, personal trainer and running coach for physiotherapy product brand Meglio.

Alex says that shin splints are a relatively non-serious injury, but do require some action in order to feel better. 

Why do you get shin splints from running?

“Shin splints are caused by inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and/or bone tissue surrounding the tibia,” explains Alex. “Inflammation is a common cause of injury for many exercisers and is often caused by the added stress that exercise puts onto the body, particularly when doing too much, too fast.” 

She explains that running, and exercise in general, causes micro-tears in our muscles. The repair and adaptation of those micro-tears makes muscles stronger and therefore we can lift heavier or run faster. However, too much stress means that these tears don’t recover properly, and can turn into injuries like shin splints. 

Shin splints
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“It’s understandable that once you get into the swing of a new training program or once you start seeing results in your performance that you’d want to push your limits and train harder, longer, and faster. However, rest and recovery are key when it comes to physical wellness and if you do not rest and recover adequately, injuries like shin splints will be inevitable,” she says.

While it is common for new runners to deal with shin splints it can also happen to those who are already used to doing a lot of sport or exrcise. “Shin splints can happen to people who are already active, but who overwork the muscle and bone tissue by increasing training intensity or frequency too quickly,” reminds Alex. 

How to treat shin splints

While shin splints aren’t a serious injury, you should still take recovering from them seriously, says Alex: “Listening to your body is paramount and will definitely save you from a more serious injury down the line.” 

“The first port of call should be immediately reducing your training load and taking a few rest days,” she adds. 

But as well as taking the weight off, there are other things you can do to reduce the pain and speed up recovery. These include: 

  • Ice the area to reduce inflammation
  • Treat the pain directly with anti-inflammatory medication such as Ibuprofen
  • Eat a balanced diet to reduce inflammation. This includes foods such as including green leafy vegetables, oily fish, and nuts and seeds
  • Use a foam roller to alleviate tight, knotted muscles and reduce pressure on the muscles and bones 

How to prevent shin splints

Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes, and avoiding shin splints in the first place is ideal. As Alex has already mentioned, this means making sure you take your running slow and steady. “A good rule of thumb for runners is to increase your mileage by no more than 10% per week,” she says. 

Alex also advises making sure that you incorporate slow, gentle runs into your training program – these should make up 80% of your training, with the rest being threshold, tempo, interval or long runs that are more stressful on the body.

You also need to think about what you do outside of the run, because looking after your body shouldn’t be reserved for when we are already injured. “The best thing you can do to stay injury-free as a runner is to build a strong, healthy body,” Alex says.

“Most injuries are caused by tight and/or weak muscles, so it’s important to focus on your strength and conditioning just as much as your running. Making sure to work on both legs equally will reduce imbalances, so doing single-leg exercises like pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, and the humble lunge will help. Your goal is to be a well-balanced and efficient runner, so focus on strengthening your weaknesses before you try to break PBs or race as hard as you can.”

Warming up is also key. Alex suggests using resistance bands as an excellent way to activate weak or ‘lazy’ muscles before you head out. But most importantly, “return to exercising slowly. Don’t go back into it full pelt and don’t expect to be able to hit your previous paces right away. Be kind to your body!” she reminds. 

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Images: Getty

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