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Welcome to Shin Splint Season!

Dealing With Shin Splints: A Quick Guide for Runners (and Fast Walkers!)

May 2021

Many of us lapse into exercise hibernation over cold winters like the past one we just experienced. Those runners or fast walkers among us may slip into a rut of not doing much cardiovascular exercise.

Then, as spring emerges, we are inspired by the change of seasons. We head out for our first run or walk in a long time.

But we may make a critical mistake. We aren’t realistic about where our fitness level is now. We don’t restart slowly and may overdo it. The frequent result – is shin splints.

What are shin splints?

In medical terms, shin splints are known as medial tibial stress syndrome. This painful condition develops when the shin’s muscles, tendons, and bone tissue become overworked by repetitive activity.

Your “shin” is short for the shin bone, medically known as the tibia. It is the larger of the two bones between the knee and ankle.

Man laying on back suffering shin splint pain.
Runner experiencing the pain and tenderness of shin splints on the inside front leg.

What do shin splints feel like?

When you have shin splints, you feel pain and tenderness on the inside front of the lower legs. This is the result of small tears and inflammation around the shin bone.

The pain occurs when muscles and tendons pull too hard on the periosteum, the lining of the shin bone. This lining is attached to nerve tissue, which is very sensitive.

What causes shin splints?

Shin splints are common for new runners or those returning to running after an extended break. They also occur for running and jumping athletes who have rapidly increased the duration and intensity of their workouts too quickly. They can also impact frequent walkers.

Some of the additional risk factors that cause shin splints include:

  • Wearing the wrong footwear for a specific athletic activity or wearing shoes in poor condition.
  • Not stretching enough before and after working out.
  • Running too much on hard or inclined surfaces.
  • Having flat feet, abnormally rigid arches, or an overly pronated running style.
  • Certain health issues, such as a vitamin D deficiency or weak bones from osteoporosis.

Can you get shin splints from walking?

You may also get shin splints from walking. You can be susceptible if you are new to walking as regular exercise. Or if you increase your walking distance or speed significantly without ramping up in stages.

How do you treat shin splints?

Typically, this condition will respond to at-home shin splints treatments.

  • Rest. Several weeks should be taken off, allowing the body to heal.
  • Ice. Use ice packs on the shin for 20-minute periods several times a day.
  • Flexibility exercises. Stretches for shin splints can help to relieve pain.
  • Compression Sleeves or Shin Wraps. If you can’t stop activity completely, these will help your body’s inflammatory response and increase healing blood flow.
  • Resume Slowly. After 2 to 4 weeks without pain, slowly ramp back into your normal workout routine.

Shin splints can take anywhere from one to six months to heal. You should avoid vigorous exercise or sports for at least two to four weeks, resuming only when the pain of shin splints is gone.

How can you prevent shin splints?

There are steps that you can take to lower your risk for shin splints:

  • Wear properly fitting athletic shoes. Work with an experienced running shoe store to get the best shoe for your foot type, physique, running pattern, and workout routine. Replace your shoes every 300 to 500 miles of use or when worn down.
  • Slowly build your fitness level. Start slowly and increase your exercise regimen’s duration, intensity, and frequency over time.
  • Improve your running form. Adjustments in running form can lessen the impact on the body, decreasing the likelihood that the shin splints will become chronic or more painful.
  • Cross-train. Use cross-training and alternate it with lower-impact sports like swimming or cycling.
  • Avoid running on hard surfaces. Running on hard surfaces can lead to more stress and result in injuries like shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, and stress fractures.
  • Stretch and warm up before starting to exercise and stretch afterward. Start with light activity before intense exercise, which will loosen up your shins and increase blood flow. Never stretch to the point of pain.
  • Let pain guide you. If you notice shin pain, don’t push through it. Reduce your activity level until it improves.
  • Target a healthy body weight. Excess weight places greater demand on the body’s joints and muscles when exercising.

What is the difference between shin splints vs. a stress fracture?

If you feel sharp pains while walking or hopping, it may indicate that you have a stress fracture. The pain of a stress fracture is often described as deep and throbbing. When not running, shin splints feel more like tightness with a dull ache.

Stress fractures occur when muscles become so fatigued that they can’t absorb stress. That stress then gets passed directly to the shin bone, causing a small crack.

If you suspect that you may have a stress fracture, you should make an appointment to see a doctor.

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