Why do I get shin pain when I run?

Is it normal for shins to hurt running?

Running training can generate areas of discomfort at times – it’s part of the body’s process of loading and rebuilding. There are some common areas that runners feel these niggles, including Achilles tendon, knees and shins. But it’s important not to disregard this pain as “just part of running”. Shin splints is actually one of the four most common running injuries. 

So how do you know when you can push through and when you need to address the issue?

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Is it OK to run with shin splints?

If you have a mild awareness of your shins symmetrically in both legs during a run, you can safely continue running as normal. If that awareness continues on for more than a few weeks, it may be worth reducing your training volume to give your body a chance to recover.

If your shin pain gets worse over the course of a run, if it aches or gets worse hours after a run or if you can still feel pain the next day, you should reduce your running volume and get it assessed by a Physio as these are usually indications of the early stages of injury.

If the pain is sharp, if it’s very uncomfortable to walk normally or if you only feel the pain in one leg, you should get it checked out immediately as these are often signs that you may have a more significant injury.

How long should I stop running if I have shin splints?

You might notice in the previous paragraph, we kept referring to “reducing” your running volume rather than stopping it altogether. Although there are some types of injuries that mean you’ll need to stop running, most injuries will recover better if you can maintain some running volume and this is true for most forms of shin splints.

While it may feel better when you’re not running for a week or two, those few weeks off can make it even more difficult to return to running and can cause ongoing recurrences of the same injury. Along with that risk, you’re also less fit and strong after an extended period of rest so you’re more likely to be affected by other injuries as well.

Why won’t my shin splints go away?

To understand why shin splints can hang around for so long, we need to understand the two different types of treatment approaches for shin pain. Some treatments focus on rapid reduction of pain, while other treatments are focused on rectifying the underlying cause of the pain.

If you feel like your shin pain is like a roller coaster with constant ups and downs, you’re probably only using the first type of treatments which change the pain but not the cause. This category of treatment includes rest, ice packs, massages and medication. Each of those approaches can be helpful in the overall management of shin pain but they’re far more effective when combined with treatments that fix the cause of the problem. 

How do I stop my shins from hurting when I run?

The approach needed to stop shins hurting when you run depends on the underlying condition. Sometimes it feels like shin pain will gradually loosen up over the course of a run –  in that case you would benefit from using dynamic exercises and walking as part of your warm up, rather than limping through the first few kilometres of running. If there’s mild pain that builds up during the run, you’ll benefit from taking regular walking breaks at set intervals and ideally just before the pain begins to build.

Another option that can be helpful in managing shin pain is changing the terrain that you run on. Switching from road to technical trails can improve stability and will ease shin pain caused by muscle control issues. Switching from hilly or undulating terrain to flat ground can ease shin pain caused by impact loading.

One method of reducing shin pain on the run that I’d strongly recommend against is anti-inflammatory medication. While popping a pill might hide the pain, it’s quite likely that the condition is getting a lot worse but you just don’t realise it. That’s particularly true for bone stress injuries, where a mild stress reaction can progress all the way to a stress fracture while the warning signs are being masked by the anti-inflammatories.

How do you get rid of shin splints fast?

The best combination of treatment approaches is to modify your training load along with rehabilitation for the underlying cause of the injury and managing symptoms at an acceptable level.

This might mean that you need to change the terrain you run on or to shorten the duration of your running sessions for a period of time. You’ll also need to do specific exercises targeting your individual cause of the injury. It’s worth noting that there’s no generic approach to these exercises as there are so many potential causes of the same shin pain. That’s why borrowing your friend’s rehab plan never yields the same results.

As mentioned above, if you can keep on running during your rehabilitation phase, you’ll tend to get faster improvements and less chance of injury recurrence. Just be open to modifying your training as recommended by your Physiotherapist rather than ignoring the pain and continuing with the same program. 

Written by

Pete Colagiuri
Sports Physiotherapist

Pete has over 20 years experience as a Physiotherapist and specialises in running biomechanics and complex injuries. He believes that you must identify and fix the underlying cause of an injury, to recover faster, prevent recurrences and improve performance.

Pete Colagiuri - Sports Physio