Shin splints—when left untreated—quickly become one of the worst running-related injuries that’ll hinder your workout. You can get them by increasing your running frequency, intensity, or duration. Plus, improper form or poorly-fitted shoes can also cause them to inflame. The effect? Lots of burning lower-leg pain that can cripple your workouts and keep you from racing. Learn how to prevent and treat shin splints, so you don’t go into marathon season behind.
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1) Build gradually
Instead of running too much too soon (a main cause of shin splints) increase your speed and distance gradually. Avoid the 5-mile itch. “If you’re a new runner, you’re not going to suddenly run 5 miles,” says Keith Jeffers, D.C., C.C.S.P. “You need a break-in period. Start with 20 minutes of a walking-running combo every other day.” When it comes to building intensity and duration, 10 is the magic number. Increase you walking distance 10% each week while simultaneously amping up your run to walk ratio by 10%, says Jeffers.
The impact of running can shock your system, so supplement miles logged with exercises that are less jarring on the joints, like cycling, rowing, and swimming. “Do cross training instead of running every day with a 3+2 program,” says Bill Pierce, Professor and Chair of the Health Sciences department and lead author of Runner’s World Run Less, Run Faster. “Three runs and two cross training sessions gives you five cardiovascular workouts a week.”
Fight the tendency to heel strike or pull a tippy–toed Fred Flintstone dash. Hitting heel first causes overstriding and leads the foot to slap down onto the pavement, stretching the shin muscles and forcing them to work harder to slow down. And running on your toes stresses the calf muscles in the back of the leg. Avoid injury and strain with a flat, mid-foot landing, says Jeffers. A correct gait is essential to injury prevention.
You may be pulling for that finish line, but make it a habit to watch your stride length—especially at the end of a taxing workout. While biomechanics and varying leg length make it impossible to prescribe an exact distance, shorter is always better. “When you’re getting back into the sport, spend the first two weeks purposely staying with a relatively short stride to reduce the liability of shin splints,” says Jeff Galloway, an Olympian who has coached over one million runners to their goals. Practice with a cadence drill once a week every week. Count your cadence—how many times you turn over—on one foot for 30 seconds. Then, take a 30-second break. Repeat for 4-8 sets, aiming to add an additional count each time. “Research shows that as runners become faster their stride shortens, so the key to boost mechanical efficiency is to increase turnover rate,” says Galloway. Keep in mind there is no magic number. A prescribed turnover rate might drive some individuals to failure and not be enough for others.
Minimalism may be all the rage, but that doesn’t mean that going barefoot is for you. In fact, it may be causing your shin splints. “Minimalist shoes don’t have arch support, so the foot is rolling and overpronating, making athletic overuse injuries more common [for some runners],” says Jeffers. Look for motion control or stability shoes, or a good neutral shoe. When it comes to shopping around for the right fit, an experienced observer at a running store is your best ally. Also, change your shoes. Running in worn-out sneakers is one of the most common causes of shin splints. Replace your shoes every 300 miles (or every year if you don’t run a lot).
Pay attention to your body. With a classic shin splint, the painful area covers most of the front of your lower leg, but has no long-term degenerative effect. As you’re running, it usually goes away and never exacerbates. Acute pain in one spot could be a more serious stress fracture, making you unable to run at all.
If you notice you’ve been heel striking or overpronating, replace your shoe’s foam liner with a plastic orthotic for additional arch support. This helps treat and prevent shin splints—not to mention other overuse injuries, like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, iliotibial band, and runner’s knee. Your local running store should have form-fitted orthotics available.
While you’ll likely want to cut back on frequency and distance, a shin splint doesn’t mean your running career has to come to a screeching halt. Try icing and massaging your calf muscles for 20 minutes a couple of times a day. It’s all about staying below the threshold of further irritation. Train super gently or just lay off for a few days and cross train in the pool or on a bike to allow the shin to heal. Aim to run half the distance you ran before while increasing the walking frequency. If you didn’t run at all before, run/walk at a 2:1 ratio. If you took walk breaks before, run/walk at a 1:1 ratio. If you regularly maintain a 1:1 ratio, run 15 minutes and walk 45. If the pain continues, allow for a 1-2 week recovery period.
Whether you’re overstriding, suffering from weak muscles, or have a shaky stance, biomechanics could be at the root of your problem. Gait—how you place your feet, stride, and strike—plays a role in running injuries. Find a podiatrist or physical therapist who knows running, has treated shin splints, and wants to help you continue running, if possible. Have them look at your form, define what might be contributing to your pain, and prescribe healing exercises.