One of the most common injuries to sideline a new exerciser is shin splints. There are various reasons why this happens (as well as ways to prevent it), but the biggest cause is from people hopping into a new routine too quickly.
I understand the motivation. After letting your fitness and your physique slip for so long, you just want to turn it around as fast as possible. Unfortunately, since your body adapts to what you do (or don’t do), your muscles, connective tissue, and even your bones aren’t ready to handle a sudden increase in activity.
What are shin splints?
The medical term for shin splints is medial tibial stress syndrome. It’s an overuse injury, which means it is slowly brought on by repetitive wear as opposed to an acute injury which happens quickly like a muscle pull or sprain. The pain will start with tenderness as you exercise, but eventually it will last well past when you’re done.
While the pain is similar, the causes of the pain can either originate with the muscles or the bones:
1. Muscle: The muscles that connect to the ankle and keep your foot from flopping to the pavement with each step become irritated as they expand against the surrounding facia (you can read more about facia in the foam roller article). When this muscle is weak (say from years of inactivity) and it becomes tired, the muscle becomes easily enflamed as it strains against the surrounding facia.
2. Bone: Another source of shin splints is caused by the continuous pounding from activities like running actually creating microscopic fractures along the shin bone. The harder the surface and the less protection from your shoes, the greater the impact (and the greater the risk of shin splints). With proper rest, your body will repair these cracks and make your bones stronger to compensate, but if you keep pushing too hard in the beginning, these tiny cracks can develop into full fledged fractures. Women are more susceptible to this type of injury, and they are more susceptible to shin splints in general.
Please stop if you have shin splints!
There are things you can do to sooth the pain and help heal your shin splints such as ice, compression wraps, stretching, and even foam rolling (if it isn’t too painful for you to handle), but the number one thing you need to do is stop the offending activity immediately and give your shins time to heal. I have continued my workouts many times while injured (I’m crazy that way too), but this is one injury you can’t work through. Without time to heal, it will only continue to get worse until you either need surgery to cut the facia open to relieve the pressure or you develop stress fractures. While it can get pretty bad if you try to push through the pain, shin splints heal completely without the need for any medical intervention as long as you give your body time to heal.
Don’t get shin splints in the first place
Since the point of this article is removing the obstacles that will make you abandon your new fitness routine, I wanted to offer some tips to avoid shin splints and keep you progressing towards your goal:
1. Buy some nice shoes: People with flat feet or those who tend to pronate their feet (rotate their feet inward so they carry more weight along the inside edge of their feet) are more susceptible to shin splints. Proper running shoes or orthopedic inserts can counter this pronation or add arch support. You also want some decent cushion to reduce the continuous shock from running, which is why it’s worth it to invest in a good pair of running shoes. I highly recommend shopping at a specialty running store to get help with the right type of shoe for your foot. They help beginners all the time, so don’t feel like you have to be training for a marathon to even step inside.
2. Work uphill, not down: While eccentric training is a great way to quickly build strength, the eccentric part of running is the primary cause of shin splints. When your heel hits the ground, the muscles along the shin contracts eccentrically to keep your foot from flopping to the ground uncontrollably. The eccentric part of the motion is deceptive because it causes micro-tears in the muscle while not exhausting the muscle the way concentric motions do (when the muscle contracts to pull the joint back up). While these tears stimulate the body to repair itself and build stronger muscles, if you start off too hard and don’t allow proper rest, those tears enflame the muscle and cause it to swell painful against the surrounding facia. If you’ve ever had shin splints in the past or have taken a long time off of exercise, I highly recommend working with an incline. The higher the incline, the less your foot has to flop down with each impact. This is why I put the option for incline only training into BeatBurn. If you’re working on a treadmill, then it’s easy to add a little incline, but if you want to work outside, be careful. While working uphill is fine, running downhill will increase the distance your foot has to fall which increases the chances of developing shin splints. If you’re running uphill, make sure you walk down any hills you encounter. Ideally, bring it down to a slow walk and shuffle your feet low to the ground. As I’ve mentioned in many articles, I’m a big fan of interval training to get fast results in a short amount of time. If you want to work hills, you can run or jog up the hill and then turn around and slowly walk down it a few times to get in a short yet effective workout. But don’t underestimate what a good workout you can get from walking uphill. Running drives far more shock through your legs than walking, so if you want to burn some serious calories with your new workout program while still protecting your shins, give incline walking a try.
3. Take it slow: I try to hammer home to new exercisers you don’t have to catch up on all your inactivity in one day. I know you’re eager to get started, but if you go too hard in the beginning, your new fitness journey will end quickly and painfully. As I’ve said through many of these articles, your body adapts to what you do. While it does this pretty quickly, you still need to give it time to work. If you’ve ever fallen victim to shin splints in the past then I suggest you take it extra slow. Whether you try interval training or just go for a jog, start out with a few minutes of cardio total, then take a day off and add a minute or two to the next session. If your shins ever feel tired or tender, end the workout immediately and take 2 days off. Your body will get stronger if it has time to heal. Once again, I still suggest mostly walking in the beginning as your body adapts and improves.
4. Work your legs: When I say take a day or two off in between cardio sessions, that doesn’t mean you have to do nothing. As I mentioned in the Easy Legs article, your legs are your life, and properly conditioning your leg muscles will make you less susceptible to all kinds of injuries, including shin splints.
5. Work your shins: Gizmodo.com has an article about an excellent therapy exercise that will strengthen the muscles along your shin and make you less susceptible to shin splints. I highly recommend adding it to your training regiment if you’ve ever suffered from shin splints in the past.
6. Performance Stretching: Tight calf muscles, old injuries, and muscle imbalances can increase your chances of developing shin splints. Performance Stretching is loaded with helpful routines that will improve your flexibility, show you how to use a foam roller to break up facia adhesions, and warm you up properly before a run. It would be helpful to do a week or two of stretching before starting a new cardio regiment, but if you’re eager to start, at least make sure it’s a part of your fitness plan.
Plan for the future, not today
Shin splints don’t have to sideline your new fitness routine. Invest in some decent shoes, plan a reasonable routine for your fitness level, and build up your workouts slowly. It doesn’t matter what you do on day 1 (as long as you don’t overdo it), it matters what you do on day 50 or day 150. If you want to make real changes, you have to stick with this long term. Give your body the chance to rebuild itself from the inside and you’ll start to see those positive changes on the outside sooner than you think.