Shin splints are awful, and I come across a lot of clients who get them. I have had them in the past as well, so I wanted to share with you how I let them heal, and how I have gone four years without any problems. First, what exactly is a shin splint, besides painful?
What Are Shin Splints?
As a very broad explanation, shin splints present with tenderness or sharp pain in the lower, front half of your leg (along the Tibia bone). Typically this tenderness is OK at rest, but presents during activity, especially any form of running or high impact exercises that utilize foot flexors (i.e. squat jumps, box jumps, etc). If the shin splints get bad enough, it can present with edema. Typically, if not addressed, less and less exercise will cause the shin splints to present. It has been shown that there is reduced bone density in the Tibia of those with shin splints, but that can return to normal with recovery.
Risk factors for getting shin splints include (but are not limited to):
- Over-pronation (when your foot “rolls” to the inside)
- Previous injury
- Increased body mass
- Low muscle strength
- Arch height
- Running form and/or running on hard surfaces
What To Do About Shin Splints
The most important thing is to first let your shin splints heal. This can be done by engaging in lower impact activities and simply resting. Instead of doing jumping exercises, take the impact out. For example, do squats in place of squat jumps, step-ups in place of box jumps, and static lunges in place of lunges or lunge jumps. If you are not training for a race (and even if you are) it is probably worth your while to take a few days or weeks off from running. The stress of running almost always exacerbates the issue.
I also recommend taking a look at your shoes. 100% of the time that I have a client/boot camper with shin splints, I recommend they go to a running store/shoe specialty store and get fitted for the correct shoe for their activity. Having the right type of support for YOUR foot will do wonders for your feet. When I first started running I had super cheaply designed shoes and I was getting shin splints all the time. I finally went to get fitted and the person helping me pointed out how cheaply the shoe was manufactured and how little support it had. After I was fitted for a better shoe, I stuck with that model for close to four years. When I was originally fitted, I was only running 2-4 miles at a time.
During my marathon training I started having some joint issues and I knew it was my shoes. When I got fitted, I was told that I was only able to run those distances in the shoe I had because I had a very neutral walk. Getting refitted every few years is important. After pregnancy your gait can change, as well as the size of your foot. As you progress into being a faster, or longer distance runner, your stride may change enough that you need a new shoe. For these reasons, it is important to get refitted every year or two.
Another reason I often see clients getting shin splints is because they are increasing their activity too quickly. I usually recommend sedentary clients who are new to working out to begin with just two to three days per week. I know we have this “all or nothing” mentality entering into changing our fitness, but if you approach it slowly, it WILL become a lifestyle. If you approach it slowly, you put yourself at less risk for injury and you are less likely to burn out. Doesn’t that sound more maintainable?
When I first got into running (I had run on and off throughout college, but it was always weight loss specific and nothing I enjoyed), I was running everyday. I didn’t have a gym membership, and really just didn’t know anything about running. I did not have a training schedule nor had I done much research on how to safely get better at running. It wasn’t until I began training for my first half marathon that I realized I was overtraining, which was exacerbating the shin splint issue. I began to run only four days per week, increasing mileage slowly each week, and I did not run more than two days in a row. I followed this approach up until I did my recent marathon training. During this training cycle, I was running a fifth day per week, but after four years of four days per week, my body could definitely handle the increase.
Jump into exercise slowly. Fitness is not a sprint – it’s a lifestyle. You do not have to be the fastest, fittest, or strongest right out of the gate. It is better to ease yourself in so that it becomes a habit, instead of jumping in too hard, getting injured/burning out, starting over, and repeating the cycle. Start with three days per week. After 2-4 weeks, add a fourth day. Focus on strength training AND cardio (whether it’s HIIT or running). Strength training will help with bone density, as well as injury prevention, and increasing your metabolic potential.
This is a very brief overview of shin splints, but I hope these tips help you to heal. Get refitted for your activity every year or two. Bear in mind that pregnancy changes your gait, so you may need new shoes during or after pregnancy. Increase your exercise slowly. This will help you to avoid injury and to let your body adapt to the new stress you are putting on it. Most importantly, listen to your body!