Recovering from Shin Splints

Shin Splints: a common ailment among new runners and those who try to increase their mileage too quickly. It is, typically, a pain on the inside of the lower leg that feels as though it is in, or on, the shin bone. Despite the name, it is not a fracture of the shin bone nor is it caused by splinters of bone becoming detached.

I was probably the perfect candidate for this sort of running injury, having started running recently but bringing a high level of fitness from my long-distance cycling. It was too tempting to push the miles up before my body was ready for the different stresses of running. Inevitably I had shin splints. I’m better now, and here’s what I learned:

Bones bend. They have to. If our bones were completely solid they would be brittle. The fact that our bones bend is useful, it means that when we’re running our bones can act as springs and absorb some of the impact of each stride. It is interesting that, for such a common injury, the reason for the pain of shin splints is poorly understood, but the best explanation I can find depends on the ability for bones to bend, and in particular in the way that the shin bone bows when we run. Flexing that bone more than usual causes something (nobody seems to know what) to come awry.

When my injury first occurred, it was quite hard to keep running as the calf muscle tended to react to the sudden pain by going into a protective cramp. Having said that, I was quite pleased to discover that shin splints shouldn’t stop me running altogether. In fact, I found the symptoms improved most quickly when I’d been for a run.

The way to remove the pain of shin splints is to condition the shin bone (and its various attachments) to the stresses and impacts of running, as well as to strengthen the muscles of the lower leg to reduce the load on the bone. Anecdote suggests that runners who stop running while they wait for the shin splints to heal, simply end up with the same pain all over again once they restart running. The best answer seems to be to keep running, but to make adjustments to avoid aggravating the injury (aggravating it can, I understand, lead to a stress fracture which is much less fun).

Adjustments I made to reduce the pain to a manageable level include:

  • Reduced mileage (by about half)
  • Run slower, with shorter strides to reduce the load on my shin as I push off each stride.
  • Avoid hills. Running downhill in particular puts a lot of impact through the shin. Uneven surfaces and cambered road surfaces also cause additional twists and bends and are best avoided.
  • When it was most painful, I found it improved most after a short, slow run and then the application of an ice pack.
  • (Most of the stuff I read suggests to check your shoes aren’t worn out. I hadn’t yet run 100 miles in my shoes so that didn’t help me. Probably running 20 miles a week before I’d worn out a pair of shoes was exactly what caused the problem in the first place!)

I didn’t take pain killers, the occasional twinge was helpful to remind me to take care with my strides and where and how I was placing my feet. After a week of reduced mileage (10 miles, rather than the ambitious 20 I’d run for both the weeks preceding the injury), the pain was no more than a discomfort. A month later, I still get a slight dull pain from time to time when I run, but that’s no more frequent that two or three brief instances in yesterdays 17 mile run and in the context of the discomfort I was feeling by the end of that run, I’d say the shin splints no longer bother me at all.

Judging by the sore bits I have today, I think yesterday’s run may turn out to have been research for my upcoming blog post: How To Prevent Chafing.

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