Why Do My Shins Hurt When I Run?

It's happened to almost everyone: you get a little more motivation to run or your schedule happens to open up and *boom* you've caught the running bug!


But then what? After logging significantly more miles than usual, you start to have a little soreness in your shins. You run through it because "that's what runners do."


Until you can't.


Then you'll either give up running, go to a store and buy new shoes, or just maybe decrease your mileage for a while.


What should I do when this happens?

Before we get too in-the-weeds about why this happens, here's what you should do.


As a general rule, if you are having pain in your shins after just starting running, or if you can only run a certain distance/time per week before your shins hurt--do not ignore the pain!


This is likely because you need to give your body time to adapt to the stresses of running, or (read: "and") you need to address some form/biomechanics and muscle involvement issues.


So, first things first, DON'T push through the pain.


Will new shoes fix my shin splints?

No.


I think shin splints can be exacerbated by inappropriate footwear, but getting new shoes will not solve the core shin splint issue.


What's the core problem with shin splints?

It comes down to loading.


You might get a different wording from another healthcare/fitness professional, but I'll stick with "loading" for now.


Shin Splints Are Usually Caused By Doing 1) Too Much With 2) Too Much Intensity 3) Too Soon

Any time you have repeated, inappropriate loading patterns ("loading patterns" can mean too much resistance/weight, incorrect joint alignment, or poor neuromuscular control) you will end up with dysfunction and pain. Everyone has a different tolerance for pain, but eventually, the proverbial "shoe" will drop.


I've been working at specialty running stores for over five years now, and most of the people I meet with shin splints fall into that first category: "too much." They go from 0 or 2 miles per week right up to 10 or 20 miles per week.


Other people end up with shin splints after increasing their intensity too aggressively. For example, a high school cross-country runner might have been running at a comfortable pace for him/herself all summer, but when surrounded by other fast runners, all their slow runs become races--and they get shin splints.


"Too soon" is the tagline for too much and too much intensity. Increasing volume and intensity are not bad things. You have to progressively overload your body for specific adaptations. The problem of shin splints is just one example of the consequences of not giving yourself time to recover and adapt to the work you want to do.


Without adaptation, your potential is limited.


The Role of Footwear in Shin Splints

One last thing before we get into the practical ways you can work on your running form.


I said new shoes won't fix your shin splints. However, it's important to have footwear that suits your gait. In other words, your shoes should cooperate with your stride.


The best way to figure out if a shoe cooperates with your stride is to go to your local running store! Talk to the experts about what you've been running in, what you like, and what you don't like. Then try on some recommended shoes and jog around.


You don't want to be running in a shoe that fights your stride or makes you work harder. Your brain knows how your foot moves, but there aren't any shoes that connect to your nervous system (yet?). No matter how good the shoe is technically or how popular it is, if it doesn't work for you, it's not the right shoe!


Listen for the Right Shoe

One way to know if a shoe is working with your stride is the one or two-sound shoe test (I think I made this up, but it works pretty well). When you're running in a shoe, listen to your landings. if you hear two sounds, like "clip-clop" then you might want to try on another shoe.


A one-sound shoe should have just one sound when you land. And, ideally, it should be quiet. Some of the volume of your landing comes from you, but if you normally have a quiet landing and don't in a new shoe, you should be a little suspicious.


This isn't a perfect test, but I've found that it tends to provide some insight into the difficult process of picking a running shoe.


How To Get Rid Of Shin Splints

The moment you've been waiting for...


Finding The Balance Of Passive and Active Energy

I mentioned "loading" earlier. A foundational piece of running is the loading of tissues with energy followed by the transfer of that loaded energy into propulsion.


Load, then leap.


Our bodies are efficient, we can produce significant passive energy from the stretching of tendons via "viscoelasticity." However, it's not enough to have only passive energy, our muscles need to help us generate force with loading/landing and with take-off.


Over-Striding Is The Enemy

Too much volume and too much intensity (too soon) reveal issues with gait. One of the most common issues with gait in running is over-striding.


Put simply, over-striding makes you work harder than you have to. In over-striding, your foot contact and initial loading happen too far in front of your center of mass. It takes an opportunity to load passive energy and trades it for more work. When you understand this, it's little wonder that pain can be the result of over-striding!

 

But why the shins?

Much of the passive energy that can be generated during running takes place around the Achilles tendon, which is at the ankle. The muscles that cross the ankle are also in the lower leg--aka, the shin. When you have to work harder at the ankle, the shin might have to pay the price.

 

Where you land on your foot is not as important as where you land within your stride.

This is the key, read that again!


It doesn't REALLY matter whether you land on your rearfoot ("heel striker"), midfoot, or forefoot. If you are landing close to underneath your center of mass the likelihood of running-related injuries will decrease.


Of course, you can't initiate contact AND load exactly under your center of mass. You should be initiating contact somewhere just in front of you and loading (at the greatest point of joint flexion) very close to underneath your center of mass.


Side note: there are some studies that show decreased injury likelihood with certain strike patterns. Many of those studies also describe the different joint range of motion requirements for each type of strike pattern. Basically, running is too complex to focus on landing on a certain part of your foot--but we can get more into those studies later!


What's an exercise to practice proper loading?

Run in place!


Running in place is a great place to start training yourself to not over-stride. Truly running in place requires that you land and load under your center of mass (or else you'd be moving!).


Once you can run in place for a few minutes with good form (balanced, high knees, and quiet landings), start to lean forward, leading with your chest. As you lean, you'll start to move forward. Your feet will follow and start to land a little more in front of you to "catch" you. Work up to a comfortable pace, letting the forward momentum of your body carry you instead of reaching your foot out for the next step.


Doing a couple of rounds of this drill before your runs can help correct one of the core causes of shin splints. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, but it will get better!

 

I've had people do this in the store. One individual ran a lap around the store in a pair of shoes and then complained of shin pain. After doing this drill a few times, the pain was gone!

 

Other things you can do to improve your running and get rid of shin splints:

  • Strength - single-leg exercises are crucial for running form.

  • Neuromuscular training - aka, getting muscles to work when they don't want to or aren't used to doing their job. Runners often have difficulty involving their glutes appropriately with running. If one muscle group for a movement isn't doing its job, others will compensate to try and make up for the slack!

  • Incorporate rest days into your training - give your body a chance to adapt to your training!

  • Schedule a session with me to talk about/practice these skills - running is a skilled activity, and getting help with your sport-specific skills is normal for every other sport. Why not for running?


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