It feels like you should be handed an award when you decide to step up your running game (hello, you just dominated 10 whole kays!).
In reality, you might just be left with some nasty shin splints – especially if you go all in too soon.
“It’s one of the most common things I see in my office,” says Dr Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine doctor and author of Running Strong.
Pesky shin splints occur when the muscles, tendons and bone tissue around your tibia become inflamed during repetitive movements like running, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The pain along your shinbone may be sharp or throbbing. “You know you have it if, when you push on your shinbone after a run, it’s sore,” says Dr Metzl. Another tip-off: The pain is causing you to change your stride.
(One note: If there’s no pain when you touch the bone, but there’s tightness when you run, that could be what’s called exertional compartment syndrome, which is something else entirely and requires a doctor visit.)
Why the heck did I get shin splints?
Most likely, you ramped up the mileage too quickly, which can irritate the shinbone, says Dr Metzl.
Transitioning from treadmill to outdoor running or not wearing the right shoes can also contribute to shin splints, says Nicole Hengels, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S.), and marathon runner.
Ditto if you do a lot of road running, says Dr Jessalynn Adam, attending physician in sports medicine at the US Mercy Medical Center. Roads tend to have a slope near the side (where you run) to help water runoff, but it also means you’re running on an uneven surface – and that can set you up for shin splints.
Shin splints may also be indicative that something is off with your running mechanics. “Most commonly, a runner’s feet are flat and rolling in,” says Dr Metzl. This is known as pronating. Or, your running stride is too long. “You might feel like you’re running like a gazelle, but this puts more loading force on shins,” he says.
Your bone density may also be low, says Dr Metzl. This can be caused by genetics, dietary problems (if you don’t get enough calcium or vitamin D) or hormonal issues.
Can I prevent shin pain?
If you’re a beginner or you’re training for a race, increasing mileage slowly will help prevent shin splints, says Dr Rachel Triche, sports medicine specialist, orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon.
“You want to cross-train at the same time to make sure you’re not doing too much, too soon,” she says, which means activities like biking, swimming strength training. And, as a general rule, don’t increase your mileage more than 10% each week.
More than that, you’ve got to correct your running mechanics – otherwise, it’s pretty much guaranteed those shin splints will come back to haunt you. “Staying off your feet will fix the pain, but not the cause,” says Dr Metzl.
Still, correcting your form is easier said than done. Going to a sports doctor before you jump into serious running is your best bet. You might need arch support for flat feet. Or, you may need a strength routine to target your hips and butt muscles, which will help take force off the shinbone as you run. You can also head to your local speciality running store for a gait analysis, Dr Adam says. “They’ll give you form suggestions and recommend particular running shoes that can help,” she adds.
How do I get rid of shin splints?
Don’t just “tough it out.” You may be tempted to grin and bear it. But that would be a big mistake. Running through the pain can cause a stress fracture, turning what should be three weeks of recovery into something that takes months to heal, says Dr Metzl. Your first move after feeling pain should be to see your doctor for a diagnosis.
Try some “relative resting.” Dr Metzl recommends taking a break for at least two weeks. Swap running for biking or swimming, as a low-impact way to keep up your cardio fitness while you work with a doctor to figure out what’s going on. You may also want to combine this time off with physical therapy, based on your doc’s recommendation.
Treat the area. You can try to improve healing by icing tender areas – 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, recommends the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. You can also take an OTC anti-inflammatory medication after you run if it’s really killing you, Dr Triche says. (But yeah, if it’s that bad, maybe just rest?)
Get the right gear. Finding the right pair of running shoes for your body and fitness goals is key.
Ease back in, don’t jump. When you think your shins are ready for it, you’ll want to slowly transition back into your running routine, Dr Triche says. “If you go back and it hurts, you’ll need to back off again,” she adds.
Check in with a professional. If it feels like you’ve been dealing with shin splints forever and they’re not getting better, head back to the doctor, Dr Adam says. You may need physical therapy to try to correct your gait and get you back into the game.
“Remember that for most of us, our goal is to remain a lifelong runner,” says Hengels. “Make sure you are healthy first and focus on the finish line second.”