If you’ve ever had them, then you know they’re the pits. No not a stomach bug (although man, that is the worst)—we’re talking about shin splints. That nagging pain concentrated in the front of your leg along the tibia, shin splints are usually experienced during and after exercise and when you press on the area. In less common cases (about 10 percent), the tightening pain can be felt in the soft, outside, muscular part of the shin. The pain is usually bad enough that running becomes impossible, and then it subsides when you stop running.
What’s Going On Here?
Shin splints have derailed many an athlete’s hard-won training gains. They’re among the most frustrating injuries because they make a basic act—running—impossible. But the term 'shin splints' actually denotes more than one lower leg ailment.
Bone-related shin pain, called medial tibial stress syndrome, can cover a broad spectrum of ailments, ranging from a stress injury—irritation of the bone—to a stress fracture, an actual crack in the bone. The area hurts during and especially after exercise, and the tibia hurts when touched or tapped.
Bone-related shin pain is more common than muscular shin pain (by about nine to one); the bone actually swells and, if irritated for long enough, a stress fracture can occur. It’s generally the result of three variables: body mechanics, amount of activity, and bone density. Body mechanics include foot type, footstrike, and how your body is built. Activity can cause it if you up your training workload too soon. Bone density can be a bigger factor for women. All three of these variables can be altered or compensated for to help alleviate the problem.
The less common muscular symptoms just mentioned usually signal exertional compartment syndrome (ECS). ECS can occur in any part of the lower leg and is characterized by a tightening in the shin that worsens during exercise. Patients often report that their legs feel so tight that they might explode. Eighty percent of ECS cases happen in the front part of the shin. The leg is pain free except during activity.
How to Fix It
If it’s bone related: Make sure to see a doctor for proper diagnosis. Stress injuries can become stress fractures, which can sideline you for a long time. Also, it’s critical that you employ dynamic rest. Find another activity that doesn’t load your legs. Swimming and stationary cycling are good choices.
If it’s muscular: Two words: Foam roll. Part of the problem with ECS is tight fascia, the tough material that wraps most of our muscles. Run your shins and calves over a foam roller for several minutes several times a day to help loosen the fascia. Manual massage can help as well. Also, try arch support and motion control shoes. These can help correct biomechanical problems in the feet and take the stress off the affected muscles. If these measures don’t help, see a doctor.
How to Prevent It
1. Change your shoes: Try switching to a shoe that limits pronation. Arch supports can help as well.
2. Up your calcium and vitamin D intakes: Try 1,300 milligrams of calcium and 400 micrograms of D per day. Easy food sources are milk and yogurt.
3. Follow the 10 percent rule: Runners, never up your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent.
4. Train your hips and core: Strengthening these areas will make you a stronger runner, which improves footstrike and body mechanics.
5. Shorten your running stride: Doing this while increasing your footstrike cadence may help you generate better stride mechanics because you’ll be putting a lot less load on your feet, shins, knees, and on up the kinetic chain. Count your footstrikes on one side for 1 minute. A good number is 85 to 90 strikes of one foot per minute.