How to Treat Tight Shins From Running and Avoid Getting Shin Splints

Wearing the right shoes can help relieve tight shins while running.
Image Credit: evrim ertik/iStock/GettyImages

Whether you're training for a race or looking to improve your heart health, you don't want tight shins when running to derail your workouts. Also known as shin splints, that tightness may feel like throbbing, splintering or other pain along the lower part of the front of your legs.

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Luckily, shin splints won't last forever, especially if you give your legs some TLC.

If you're someone who thinks to yourself, ​"Why do I get shin splints every time I run?"​ read on to learn how to treat the pain and how to prevent shin splints in the future.

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Why Your Shins Hurt When You Run

Formally known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints generally feel like a sharp pain along the muscle in front of the shin bone (aka the tibia), according to the Mayo Clinic. Essentially, shin splints are overworked muscles, tendons and connective tissue that become inflamed.

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They're most often caused by a sudden increase in your training intensity, duration or frequency, per the Mayo Clinic. That's why this condition is common among athletes, particularly runners and dancers. (For what it's worth, you may also experience tight calves when you ramp up your running, but that is different from front-of-shin cramps or pain.)

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How to Stop Shin Splints

While you can't get rid of shin splints in five minutes (we wish!), they are fairly simple to treat.

To treat shin splints, you'll want to address the root of the issue — most often, that means adjusting your training routine. If you've recently increased your mileage or pace, the shift may have been too drastic.

Experts typically recommend following the 10 percent rule where you don't increase your mileage more than 10 percent each week, per the Mayo Clinic Health System. That means if you typically run 10 miles per week, increase by no more than 1 mile the next week.

Or if you previously ran on flat terrain and have suddenly added hills, don't be surprised if you experience some pain along your lower leg, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). Alternating hill workouts with other types of training sessions can help alleviate your pain.

But rest should be your top priority, per the AAOS. Because shin splints are caused by overuse, you'll usually need a few weeks of rest from the activity that caused your painful, tired shins depending on the severity.

In addition to rest, follow the handy treatment acronym R.I.C.E., according to the Hospital for Special Surgery:

  • R​est: Steer clear of high-impact activities that aggravate your shin splints. You can cross-train with swimming or cycling to still get a workout in without putting pressure on your shins.
  • I​ce: Ice your shins for 15 to 30 minutes a few times a day.
  • C​ompression: Using sleeves or ace bandages may help ease symptoms.
  • E​levate: Rest your legs on a pillow, chair or other elevated surface to reduce inflammation even more.

When you return to exercise, you might want to consider wearing compression socks to help promote blood flow to the area and facilitate workout recovery. You may also want to take an anti-inflammatory medication to bring down shin swelling and inflammation.

Tip

You should be pain free for at least two weeks before trying to run again, according to the AAOS.

How to Prevent Shin Splints Before They Start

Varying your workout routine is one way to prevent shin splints. If you don't already, cross-training (performing a variety of exercise modalities) is an important element to add to your fitness routine.

So if you're a runner, add a day of lower-impact exercise, like swimming or cycling to give your muscles more time to recover between your running workouts.

Increasing your training load gradually can help prevent shin splints, too. Try to follow the 10 percent rule, which means increasing your mileage or duration no more than 10 percent from one week to the next, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

And be strategic with any adjustments in your pace and intensity, per the ACE. Try gradually increasing your total training volume (duration, mileage and intensity) for two weeks, then follow it up with a week of lighter activity.

Wearing the right shoes for your feet can also help prevent shin splints from developing, according to the AAOS. Getting a gait analysis at a specialty running store can help ensure you're wearing the best shoes for your feet.

If you have flat feet or recurring shin splints, you may need to get fitted for orthotics, a type of shoe insert that helps properly align your feet, taking stress off your shins. You can consult an orthopedist to determine whether orthotics would be beneficial for you.

Tip

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends replacing running shoes every 350 miles.

How to Avoid Shin Splints on a Treadmill

Although shin splints usually afflict those who go too far too fast, they can be a chronic problem for many runners.

If you typically experience shin splints from running on concrete or pavement, the cushier belt of a treadmill may offer some relief from shin splints, but it isn't a cure-all — it's entirely possible to develop shin splints on a treadmill but not outside.

The good news: Certain precautions and strategies can minimize your risk of developing shin splints when running on a treadmill that are similar to running on the road. Here are a few that can stop shin splints when running on a treadmill.

1. Get Fitted for the Right Shoes

Head to a running specialty store and have a gait analysis performed. Usually stores offer these at no cost. Purchase running shoes that are appropriate for your foot strike and are the proper size. Shop later in the day to account for foot swelling. Never wear old and worn out shoes while running.

2. Ramp Up the Number of Miles You Cover Gradually

If you are new to running, hit the treadmill just a couple times per week for 20 to 30 minutes and alternate running and walking to ease your body into it. Over time, you can increase the duration, intensity and frequency of your runs.

3. Vary the Incline Setting on the Treadmill

Set it to at least a 1 percent grade to make up for the lack of wind resistance and for the fact that a 0-percent grade can feel slightly downhill to your body, particularly your shins.

Consider changing the incline 0.5 to 1 percent every 1/2 or full mile while running so it feels more like the constantly varying terrain you would encounter while running outside, according to Aaptiv, a fitness app that provides workouts from certified personal trainers.

4. Warm Up

Before you begin running, walk briskly for at least five minutes. Then start with a light jog for at least another five minutes before starting a full-out run.

5. Stretch and Strengthen Your Shin Muscles

There are stretches you can do to treat tight shin muscles and relieve the associated pain. The Cleveland Clinic recommends stretching for three to five minutes, both before and after your workout with these exercises.

Move 1: Seated Shin Stretch

  • Sit on your lower legs with the tops of your feet facing down and your butt resting on your heels.
  • Push down on your heels gently to stretch your shins
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat three times.

Move 2: Soleus Stretch

  • Stand facing a wall.
  • Step back with one leg and bend that knee, keeping your heel on the ground. This will stretch the lower part of your calf and help relieve pain in the shin.
  • Lean forward to stretch the rest of the calf.
  • Hold for 30 seconds
  • Repeat three times.

Warning

If shin splints are chronic and do not subside with at-home treatments, consult your physician. You may be suffering from a more serious condition such as tendinitis, a stress fracture or compartment syndrome, according to the Mayo Clinic.

What to Do if You’re Experiencing Top-of-Shin Pain or Tightness Specifically

Whether you're logging miles on the road or on your treadmill, you may notice pain in the upper shin only, as opposed to the entire front of your lower leg.

Anyone can experience top-of-shin pain, no matter your age or fitness level. This area contains numerous nerves, connective tissues and muscles — including the tibialis anterior, the peroneus longus and the extensor digitorum longus.

Besides pain, additional symptoms can include shin tenderness, swelling, soreness, inflammation, warmth, bruising and redness, according to Ventura Orthopedics. Like lower-shin pain, top-of-shin pain can cause instability or problems with mobility, making running difficult or even impossible.

Aside from overuse, there are a few reasons you may experience upper-tibia pain. The impact of your heels striking the ground or frequently pushing yourself off with your toes can cause shin pain when walking or running.

Additionally, jogging on hard or unstable surfaces — such as concrete, ice or side-sloping streets — can affect your upper shins, as can excessive downhill running, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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