For many runners, shin splints are an inevitable part of life. This painful condition, also known as medial tibia stress syndrome, is a classic overuse injury that also afflicts hikers, dancers and people who play sports like basketball or soccer.
Shin splints occur when the muscles, tendons or bone tissue around the tibia (shin bone) become inflamed from overuse. It involves those muscles that help you push off.
The condition most commonly occurs when you are starting a new exercise routine or significantly ramping up your workload. Poor stretching routines can also contribute.
This isn’t an injury that’s life-altering. It can usually be treated at home with two to four weeks of rest, ice packs and over-the-counter pain relievers. But there are steps you can take to avoid the condition altogether. Let’s look at seven strategies to do just that:
Gradually increase the distance you cover. If you’ve been running for a while and want to increase your distance, add up to 25 percent to your total run each week. But if you are a new runner (going from your couch to a 5K, for example), start off by running every other day. This gives your body time to recover during your off days. You can slowly add in the other days as your body gets used to the exercise.
Give your body a chance to rest between runs. It’s normal to feel sore after a particularly hard workout. But the pain should largely be gone by the next day, and you should be feeling refreshed and ready to go. If not, that’s a sign that you are pushing too hard and need to build in some additional recovery time.
Run on softer surfaces. Concrete is the hardest surface you can run on, which translates to more stress for your legs. You’d be better off on asphalt or, even better, dirt, grass or sand. In addition to being easier on your legs, softer surfaces also encourage smaller muscles around your ankles to work a little harder, which can make you more resilient.
Wear the right shoes. Having the correct shoes can be critical for supporting you during a run. Too many people simply grab a pair of running shoes that seem to fit and call it a day. But feet vary from person to person, with each of us distributing our weight differently as we walk or run. Consider dropping by a local running store, where they have people who are trained to watch your gait and help you find the right fit.
Diversify your training program. Cross training can help you in several ways. First, it gives your body a chance to rest while you are doing a different activity. But more importantly, you can strengthen your leg muscles, which running doesn't really do. By working on the muscles that help support your body when you run, you’ll be better at absorbing the accompanying shock.
Work on strength training. Weak muscles can contribute to shin splints. Heel and toe raises help strengthen your calf and shin muscles. Squats are also good for your entire lower body. Also consider this simple exercise: Wrap a towel or resistance band around your foot and ankle. Then just work your ankle in all directions – pushing it down, pulling it up and moving it side to side. Another easy option is toe curls. Sit on a chair with your foot on a flattened towel on the ground in front of you. Then use your toes to scrunch the towel and pull it toward you, without moving your heel.
Stretch your calves. Your primary target is the deep posterior muscles at the back of your calves. One easy way to do this is by wrapping a towel around your foot and use it to pull your toes toward your nose. Alternatively, you can put your toe against a wall and then lean into the wall. You can do this with your knees bent or straight to work different muscles in the target region.
These strategies can help you avoid troublesome and painful shin splints. But also remember that your body has its own early warning system. It will tell you when you are pushing yourself too hard.
Too many people think the phrase “no pain, no gain” refers to all pain. That’s simply not true. It’s normal to be sore after a workout or hard run. But when that soreness lingers into the next day and beyond, that’s a sign that you need to slow down and let your body recover.
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