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What are Shin Splints? Causes, Symptoms and How to Combat It

June 30 2024 8 min read

Whether you’re a newcomer to running or a seasoned professional, you’ll likely have heard of something called shin splints. This common condition can be a real hindrance to your fitness goals, and it’s thought that up to 20% of runners will suffer from shin splints at some point in their lives. 

But we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything there is to know about shin splints, what causes them and how you can prevent them and we’ve got some expert advice from Tim Andrews, Head of Fitness Product here at Fitness First.

What are shin splints?

Shin splints are one of the most common injuries that fitness enthusiasts can get. Medically referred to as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), it affects the shinbone and the surrounding muscles and tissue. It’s usually characterised by pain anywhere along the shinbone or tibial — which is the big bone that starts under your knee and runs down the front of your lower leg. 

“Imagine you’re out for a run or running on the treadmill, and suddenly, a sharp or dull aching pain begins to develop along your shin,” explains Tim. “This discomfort is the main characteristic of shin splints, and the pain can vary in intensity from mild to severe.”

What are the causes of shin splints?

Shin splints are linked to repeated stress on the bone and the tough membrane (periosteum) that covers it. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t any exact cause of shin splints, but if you do get them, it’s more than likely that you’re putting too much strain on the shin bone, causing it to become inflamed. 

“Several factors contribute to the development of shin splints,” says Tim, “Including:

  • Muscle overuse — Repeated use of the muscles in the lower leg, particularly those used for running or jumping, can lead to small tears in the muscle fibres and inflammation.

  • Periosteal reaction — The periosteum, a thin layer of tissue covering the bone, can become inflamed due to the constant pulling of the muscles and tendons attached to it.

  • Bone remodelling — In response to stress, the tibia undergoes a natural process of bone remodelling. When the stress is too great, the remodelling process can’t keep up, leading to pain and potential microfractures.”

However, you’re more likely to experience shin splints if:

  • You’ve just started a new vigorous activity

  • A sport or activity involves running or jumping on hard or uneven surfaces

  • Your shoes don’t fit well, are worn out or don’t have enough support

  • You have flat feet

  • You’re overweight

  • You’re a woman

  • You have knees that turn inward 

  • Not warming up before you exercise

  • Not stretching after you exercise

“Imagine you’re out for a run or running on the treadmill, and suddenly, a sharp or dull aching pain begins to develop along your shin. This discomfort is the main characteristic of shin splints, and the pain can vary in intensity from mild to severe.”

Tim Andrews, Head of Fitness Product

How long can shin splints last?

Shin splint pain comes on when you exercise and goes away when you rest. So, because of this, it won’t go away until you take a long period of time off from exercising. 

Depending on how severe they are, they can go away within 2 - 6 weeks; however, some people have noted up to 2 months of recovery time.

What are the symptoms of shin splints?

When you have shin splints, you might not necessarily feel them all the time. Recognising the signs early on can help you address the issue before it sidelines your fitness routine. But what are some symptoms you should look out for?

  • A dull, aching pain — The most common symptom of shin splints is a dull, aching pain along the front part of your lower leg. This pain often creeps up during or after physical activity.

  • Tenderness or soreness — When you press along the inner part of your shin, does it feel tender or sore? This localised tenderness is a classic sign of shin splints — it might feel sensitive to the touch and can make walking a bit uncomfortable.

  • Pain that worsens with activity — Do you notice that the pain intensifies when you’re on the move? Whether you’re running, jumping, or even going for a brisk walk, the discomfort tends to spike during physical activities and can persist even after you’ve stopped. 

  • Mild swelling — Look closely at your lower leg. Is there a slight puffiness or swelling? While not always present, mild swelling can accompany the pain and tenderness of shin splints, adding to that uncomfortable feeling.

  • Pain in both legs — Shin splints often affect both legs, although one side might hurt more than the other. If you’re feeling that familiar ache in both shins, it’s a strong indicator that the pain you’re dealing with is shin splints. 

What exercises can lead to shin splints?

Curious about what exercises might be causing shin splints? Let’s break down some of the most common culprits:

  • Running — Running is one of the most common activities that can lead to shin splints, especially if you’re new to it or have recently increased your mileage or intensity. The repetitive motion of pounding on hard surfaces like concrete can put a lot of stress on your shins, especially if you’re not wearing the right running shoes. 

  • Jumping exercises — Activities that involve a lot of jumping, such as HIIT, Boxercise, jump rope and more, can be tough on your lower legs. The constant impact and explosive movements can contribute to muscle fatigue, so it’s important to stop if you’re feeling any pain. 

  • High-impact sports — Sports that involve running and quick direction changes, like basketball, football or tennis, can increase the risk of shin splints. The combination of sprinting, stopping and pivoting can strain the muscles and tendons around your shins. 

  • DancingDancers, especially those in high-impact styles like ballet, jazz or hip-hop, often experience shin splints. The rigorous footwork, jumps, and landings can overwork the leg muscles. 

  • Hiking — Hiking, particularly on uneven terrain or steep inclines, can also contribute to shin splints. The carrying surfaces and uphill climbs can place additional stress on your shins, especially if you’re carrying a heavy backpack. 

How can you treat shin splints?

Dealing with shin splints can be a real pain, but the good news is that there are effective ways to treat them, so there’s no need to worry. 

1. Rest and recovery

The first and most important step is to give your legs a break. Reduce or stop activities that cause pain, allowing your shins to heal.

Rest is crucial to prevent further injury. Avoid high-impact activities and consider switching to low-impact exercises like swimming, yoga or cycling during your recovery period. 

2. Ice therapy

Applying ice packs to the affected area can help reduce pain and swelling. Aim for around 15-20 minutes, a few times a day, to help soothe the pain. Make sure to wrap the ice pack in a towel to protect your skin — you don’t want to get an ice burn!

3. Compression

Using a compression bandage or sleeve can help reduce swelling and provide support to the injured area, which can aid in a faster recovery,

Compression helps to improve blood circulation, which can promote healing and reduce the discomfort people feel with shin splints. 

4. Elevation

Elevate your legs whenever possible to help reduce the swelling. Prop your legs up on a pillow when you’re sitting or lying down to reduce any inflammation.

Remember, elevation is most effective when it’s combined with rest and ice therapy, as it helps to alleviate the pressure on your shins and speed up recovery.

5. Pain relief

This one might sound simple, but it’s one that most people will forget. Pain relievers like paracetamol and ibuprofen can help manage the pain and reduce inflammation. 

Always follow the recommended dosage and consult with a healthcare professional if needed. Pain relief medications can provide temporary ease, allowing you to continue with gentle activities while your shins heal. 

How can you prevent shin splints?

It’s not always easy to prevent shin splints, but there are a few things you can do.

1. Wear proper footwear

“Invest in quality athletic shoes that offer good support and cushioning,” says Tim. “The right footwear can make a world of difference in preventing shin splints — it could also be a good idea to go for a gait analysis if you’re a runner, as it helps determine the best shoe for you.”

If you notice wear and tear in your trainers, make sure to replace them regularly. 

2. Opt for gradual progression

Make sure to avoid sudden increases in your workout intensity or duration. Build up your activity levels gradually to give your muscles and bones the time to properly adapt.

Start with shorter, less intense sessions and slowly increase your training volume over the weeks and months to prevent loading your shins and the rest of your body.

3. Keep a variety of exercises in your schedule

“Incorporate low-impact activities like swimming, pilates or yoga into your routine to give your shins a break from the high-impact exercises. This variety can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries — microtraumas that result from repetitively using the same parts of the body,” explains Tim.

Mixing different types of workouts can also improve your overall fitness levels and reduce the repetitive stress on specific muscle groups.

4. Try strength training

Opt for strength training exercises to help strengthen your lower legs, hips and core when you’re working out. Stronger muscles can better support the stress placed on your shins during physical activities and aim to make the movements feel lighter and easier over time. 

Focus on exercises like calf raises and toe taps, and use resistance bands to build strength and stability in your legs. Don’t know where to start? Discover our expert personal trainers that can get you on the right track. 

Get your fitness on track with Fitness First 

Shin splints can be a frustrating roadblock on your fitness journey, but they don’t need to sideline you permanently. By taking the simple steps to prevent them and understanding some of their causes and symptoms, you’ll be on the road to recovery in no time. 

Discover more about all things fitness and nutrition today with our Inside Track Blog, or why not book your first class today? Find a gym near you now, whether you’re looking for a gym in London or further afield!