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Shin splints: Your recovery guide

By on Aug 24, 2013
image of runner with shin splints

Shin splints is an astoundingly common running injury. Indeed, one estimate suggests that it’s responsible for one in seven running injuries. So what exactly is the condition? And what can runners do to accelerate their rehabilitation? RunningInjury investigates.

What is shin splints?

The term shin splints does not precisely describe a specific running injury. Instead, it covers a range of pains relating to the shin, the large lower leg bone called the tibia.

Shin splints most commonly refers to what is medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). The pain is generally, but not always, felt on the medial side – the inside of the leg, facing the other leg.

What causes shin splints?

While the immediate cause of such pain is not entirely clear, a range of factors are thought to contribute to shin splints.

Overuse may be important, with sufferers often having sharply increased mileage, changed to running on hard surfaces or excessively stepped up their hill running programme.

The injury may be related to overpronation, where there is an excessive inward roll of the foot after the runner lands.

Beginners and overpronators may also be particularly susceptible, as well as those with tight, inflexible Achilles, calves and plantar muscles. Weak core muscles may also add to the risk of suffering from the condition, as with many other running injuries. This can be exacerbated by a lack of or (unsuitable) warm-up and stretching.

Finally, inappropriate or worn out running shoes can play an important role. As we discuss below, this can also contribute to an additional risk factor: a poor running style, with for example overstriding.

How can I accelerate my rehabilitation?

You’ll find the leading shin splints recovery products in our dedicated online store. The following rehabilitation tips may also be of use.

1. RICE. In general, treatment of shin splints initially revolves around the RICE approach that is used for many running injuries. The first element is resting from running, application of ice, compression (for example through use of compression bandages) and elevation of the injured area.

To maintain fitness, cross-training – in the form of other non-weight bearing exercise – can take the place of running during this period.

The return to running needs to be gradual. If pain is felt during or following a run, it is advised to stop the workout.

In addition to a slow step up in mileage back to previous levels, it is typically advised to make changes to the types of workout undertaken – avoiding hill running and speedwork during the recovery phase.

How far do you need to scale back your mileage? The answer is likely to vary significantly from runner to runner. But a rough guide is provided by the superb ‘Run for Life’ by Roy Wallack. The authors advocate cutting mileage by half, while avoiding hill running and speed work.

2. Stretching. This is typically a key part of the recovery programme. Where calf muscles are tight, for example, simple calf stretches can be particularly important.

…As with many other injuries, where runners are wearing inappropriate or worn out shoes, that can increase the risk of shin splints…

3. Running shoes (men’s; women’s).As with many other injuries, where runners are wearing inappropriate or worn out shoes, that can increase the risk of shin splints. It can also contribute to runners developing a poor running gait, further raising the risk of injury.

An obvious way to tackle a shin splints problem is therefore to switch to more appropriate running shoes.

4. Improve running style. Danny Dreyer, the man behind the Chi Running approach, argues that the condition will simply reoccur if you keep the same running form that generated shin splints in the first place. He advocates the Chi Running style and suggests that this barely uses the shin muscles. Chi Running involves runners picking up their feet with each stride – rather than pushing off with their toes, which Dreyer suggests can lie behind shin splints.

5. Surgery. Finally, in cases where these conservative treaments are unsuccessful, it may be necessary to consider surgery.

How long will it take to recover from shin splints?

In general, with care and rest, runners can recover fully from shin splints. The recovery time varies widely, though in most cases an expectation of recovery within 3-6 months is not unreasonable.

More information

Academic research currently provides few answers as to which treatment approach can most effectively support recovery from shin splints. As noted in a 2009 paper on conservative treatment options, relatively few advances have been made over the past few decades, though most studies support elements such as ice/cold therapy treatment.

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