How to Prevent Shin Splints

Physiotherapist Erin Lahay gives her top tips to avoid shin splints for new and seasoned runners

Many new runners experience the pain of shin splints, particularly if they begin training on hard concrete or asphalt surfaces. 

However, there are ways to prevent the likelihood of developing shin splits. Understanding what shin splits are, whether you are likely to develop them, and how to strengthen key areas of your body, may help you to prevent the onset of this painful runner’s ailment.

Shins splints are a repetitive overuse injury that often affects runners. Medically, shin splits are commonly referred to as MTSS (medial tibial stress syndrome), which means injury to the connective muscle tissue on the inside of the leg bone, usually the lower third. It is not uncommon for MTSS to occur on both legs simultaneously. 

Signs and symptoms of MTSS include: 

  • pain and tenderness along the lower inner leg bone (often just a few inches above the inner ankle bone) 
  • increased pain when running on hard surfaces or running downhill 
  • pain occurring fairly early on in the run, then subsiding as the muscles warm up, and then returning as the mileage increases 

MTSS is often caused by faulty running techniques, such as running with an over-stride and landing on the heel. An over-stride occurs when the foot lands in front of the knee and causes increased loading on the tibia and on the tibialis posterior muscle. Running with an over-stride can be the result of running with a slow step rate (also known as cadence) or running with a forward lean. In addition to running technique, you are have an increased risk of developing MTSS if you have previously had shin pain, if you are female, if you have poor biomechanics (pronation or flat feet), or if you are new to running or athletic activity in general. Over-training during adolescence can also have a negative impact on bone growth and can lead to problems with bone health in the future. 

The following suggestions should help you to manage the load to your shins and decrease the risk of MTSS

  • Design an appropriate training plan that gradually builds your endurance, and avoid a sudden increase in mileage. Remember that the amount of load you apply must not be greater than your body’s capacity to tolerate the load 
  • Run on soft surfaces such as trails, tracks, and treadmills, where possible. This will help to improve shock absorption and to disperse the forces through the lower limb more evenly 
  • Wear the appropriate footwear for your foot type. For example, if you are a heavy-footed runner you might want to consider wearing more cushioned shoes 
  • Consider modifying your running technique to decrease the load on your shins. Try running with a more upright posture by keeping your chest open and your hips forward. Also, try increasing your cadence (step-rate) by taking smaller steps or by running with softer steps. These techniques should help to minimize an overstride 
  • Incorporate some strengthening exercises into your training program. The exercises should involve strengthening the calves as well as the muscles above, such as the hamstrings, gluteals, and core. These muscles will work together to improve your propulsion and cadence. Your gluteals and core muscles will also help you to maintain an upright posture
  • Check out the 5 exercises we shared with COACH magazine to help prevent shin splints. 

Implementing some of these preventative measures now may save you pain and recovery time in the future. Moreover, improving your technique might also prevent other types of injuries, helping you to achieve your running goals. Prevention is key, but if you are already experiencing these symptoms, it is very important not to run through the pain as it will exacerbate the problem. Refer to the suggestions above and seek advice from your physiotherapist or another medical professional with expertise in sports injuries.