15 Expert Tips On How To Prevent Shin Splints

runner with shin splints

I'm sure that one of your worst fears as athlete is to pick up an injury that could ruin your season.

One potential setback is to suffer from a chronic injury that affects your training and performances, time and time again.

One of the worst injuries inflicted on sprinters (and runners in general) are shin splints. I know first hand how frustrating this can be as I suffered with shin splints for many years.

A combination of athletics and basketball caused continuous stress brought on by repetitive running and jumping. 

This beat my shins up pretty bad and I was unable to compete in either sport for a long time. I missed out on a lot of training and many competitions/game time so I know how frustrating it is. 

If you already have shin splints then you know that 1. They suck! And 2. They can be extremely difficult to get rid of.

But you don’t have to accept shin splints and just live with them. Shin splints can be managed and even avoided altogether.

I asked 14 coaches and physiotherapists to give me their very best tips and methods for either combating shin splints, or reducing the risk of suffering from shin splints.

I picked out their best answers to give you a complete list of ideas (the 15th is mine). Keep reading to get their tips and keep yourself in action!

15 Best Ways to Prevent Shin Splints

  1. Stretch your achilles tendons and calf muscles
  2. Take enough rest and switch activity
  3. Don’t always train in spikes
  4. Switch up your training surfaces
  5. Proper sprinting mechanics
  6. Change your running Shoes
  7. Massage the pain area with ice
  8. Add an arch support to your shoes
  9. Change your running direction
  10. Add compression support or tape
  11. Check for muscular imbalances
  12. Check for biomechanical irregularities
  13. Use a foam roller
  14. Strengthen the muscles
  15. Head to the sandpit

What are Shin Splints?

Before we go into how to treat shin splints, what exactly are they?

As the name suggests, shin splints occur in the shins along the muscle (the anterior tibialis).

The medial area is the most common site for shin splints but they can also occur towards the outside of the leg.

We can explain shin splints as the muscle tearing from the bone, inflammation of the shin muscle or a combination of the two.

In bad cases, this muscle is slightly torn along the bone and can continue to do so if the problem becomes severe.

Worst case scenario…

Under high and continuous exposure to stress, shin splints may result in more serious conditions such as a stress fracture or broken leg.

So definitely not something to ignore!

Issue for Sprinters

Shin splints can be described as an overuse injury.

This basically means that the injury is caused when you put a muscle under continuous stress repetitively.

Unfortunately, this makes sprinters extremely susceptible to shin splints.

 Here's why…

 While you are sprinting it’s important to keep the foot dorsiflexed during the forward phase of the stride cycle to create proper sprinting mechanics.  

 This will help you generate large forces upon ground contact which will help you generate speed.

 The shin muscle control these movements and is therefore the muscle that absorbs the largest amount of force while you are sprinting. 

This repetitive motion again and again over a given number of sets and training sessions can take its toll on your shins. 

Shin splints are also quite often caused by doing too much too soon.

What I mean by this is undertaking a high workload that your body is unprepared for. 

So What Should You Do?

First you need to evaluate the cause of the pain to establish whether you even have shin splints or not. We’ve already established that the pain caused by shin splints comes from the shin muscle (anterior tibialis) but don’t assume that because you have pain in the front of your leg that it must be shin splints.

For example other types of shin pain or lower leg pain can include anterior pain along the outside of the leg and stress fractures.

Discomfort from shin splints is often described as a sharp pain and is usually more generalised to one spot rather than pain along the entire shin.

To test this, simply apply some pressure through the fingertips along the shin muscle and you should be able to feel which spot the pain is coming from.   

You don’t need to become an anatomy expert, but it does help if you know where the pain is coming from so that you can start effective treatment.

When you feel pain in your shins you should decrease your workload or stop training completely, depending on your level of pain. If in doubt, stop!

If you are unsure and the problem persists then you should always check with your physio or health professional.

Ways for Sprinters to Prevent Shin Splints

As mentioned, sprinters are extremely susceptible to shin splints as they expose the shin bone and the connective tissues that attach the muscle to the bone to large forces on a repetitive basis.

I asked 14 expert coaches and physiotherapists to give me their best methods of either preventing shin splints or recovering from shin splints. Here they are…

15 Expert Tips to Combat Shin Splints

1) Stretch Your Achilles Tendons and Calf Muscles

Tightness around your achilles tendons and calf muscles can contribute to shin splints. Spend time stretching every day or every other day depending on the tightness of the muscles.

Inadequate stretching can lead to many injuries but can also be directly related to your shin problems.

Spend a good amount of time stretching with various static and dynamic stretches.

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2) Take enough rest and switch activity

Shin splints are an overuse injury. It makes sense that your first steps should be to rest.

Even after you feel okay, shin splints have a nasty way of creeping back up on you so I suggest switching up your activity.

Try cycling on bike machine or getting in a pool. Swimming and even pool running are great ways to help recovery whilst still remaining active.

3) Don’t Always Train in Spikes

If you train many times a week on a hard track using spikes then you are putting your shins and calves under a lot of pressure.

Spikes are not built to provide the foot with a lot of support. Therefore constant use every session can lead to chronic injuries such as shin splints.

Spikes should be worn during sets performed at or close to competition speed. Work performed below this intensity should be performed in trainers or even barefoot.

4) Switch Up Your Training Surfaces

Be aware of the type of surface you are training on. Hard tracks are great for running fast times in competition but they can be awful on the shins and joints when training day in day out.

Try training on grass for some sets. The grass is also great for repetitive exercises such as drills, bounding and other plyometric exercises.

If you feel pain in the shins, then I recommend not training on the track until the pain is gone entirely. The impact from the grass will be much less stressful.  

Avoid sprinting on concrete entirely. The hard surface can cause havoc with your anterior tibialis as the impact absorbed from the ankle to knee travels along it.

5) Proper Sprinting Mechanics

Proper sprinting mechanics can help prevent shin splints. In general, athletes often hit the ground too hard. Their foot-to-ground contact time is too long and/or they hit the ground with the wrong part of the foot.

When sprinting it's important to cycle the legs rapidly and forcefully to generate power (a combination of strength and speed).

When sprinting on a track with spikes, your spikes should scrap the surface of the track which makes a very distinct sound.  

If there is a ‘thud’ with every foot strike then you are hitting the ground too hard. Doing this repeatedly is sure to lead to shin splints.

There is more to sprinting than simply putting in effort to run as fast as you can.

This is often a problem with young athletes and is the reason they need to be taught correct sprinting mechanics as soon as possible.

I see the problem in adults too, especially those who started sprinting later in life for health benefits etc. and haven’t had specific coaching.

6) Change Your Running Shoes

When was the last time you changed your running shoes? It may sound obvious but often athletes don't think about this.

If your running in worn down shoes that provide you with minimum support then you are asking for a whole heap of lower leg issues, not just shin splints.

I know many athletes who have solved their shin splints just by changing their shoes.

This includes spikes. Take a look at the spikes. Are they worn down to near non existence? If so, change them!

I suggest having two pairs, one for training and one for competition. But always check your spikes.

7) Massage the Pain Area with Ice

Massaging the muscle with ice is the best way to reduce swelling and inflammation. Most athletes will just hold the ice pack against their shin.

This isn't good enough. You want to apply a bit of pressure and massage along the shin muscle for around 15 minutes.

You need to ice your shins at least every hard training day or after competition. Continue this even as the pain subsides just as a preventative measure.

Ice packs are usually not suited for this but filling a small bag with ice cubes or freezing water in a cup works great.

8) Add an Arch Support to Your Shoes

This is something athletes often don't consider. The first thing I do with my athletes when they have any kind of lower leg pain is check the arch of their foot.

If they are flat footed then they are naturally placing more stress on their lower legs which could be the cause of many problems.

Lifting the arch with a support or insole can really help relieve stress once you are suffering from pain.

Spend time building up strength in the lower legs. Not just the shins, but the feet, ankles etc. and you will soon be able to remove the support and sprint pain free.

9) Change Your Running Direction

When sprinting, make sure you run in both directions during training.

Example. If a 200m runner always runs the bend in the same direction then they are putting one leg and one side of their hip under much more pressure than the other.

This can lead to muscle imbalances and make one side more susceptible to injury.

10)  Add Compression Support or Tape

You can try wrapping your leg up before training. Go from above the ankle right up until you reach the bottom of your knee so that the entire shin is completely covered.

You can continue doing this until you no longer feel pain.

This helps prevent the amount of pressure placed on the shins.

11) Check for Muscular Imbalances

Check for muscle imbalances. Are your calf muscles way stronger than your shin muscles?

Likewise, is one leg stronger than the other?

These things are important to consider and you should spend time making sure you don’t have any muscular imbalances.

This is often the case when you have shin splints in one leg.

To eliminate muscular imbalances of the lower leg, try running with a shorter stride whilst also strengthening the shin muscles.

As you increase your strength you can gradually begin to open up your stride length. Doing this will take pressure of the shins and allow you to continue running without discomfort or pain while strengthening at the same time.

Also make sure you are stretching your calves. This will reduce the stress placed on the shin muscles.

12) Check for Biomechanical Irregularities

Sometimes the athlete will just have a biomechanical irregularity. In this case you need to do two things.

First is to work out if there is a way to alleviate the stress that induces shin splints or eliminate it entirely.

This may be through physical manipulation such as raising the arch of the foot using shoe insoles or another method.

You can only really decide on what steps to take after an evaluation.

The second is whether long term training is going to be harmful to you or the athlete. This is sometimes difficult to accept but the harsh truth is that severe shin splints are nasty and if you can't solve the problem, no amount on pain relief can combat continuous damage.  

13) Use a Foam Roller

Massaging is a great way to alleviate any tightness within the shins. This will help increase blood flow and decrease any muscle soreness.  I suggest using a foam roller or massage ball.

In fact I think these are integral pieces of kit for any sprinter, especially if you don't have regular access to a sports masseuse.

 Shin Splint Exercises

14) Strengthen the Muscles

Focus on strengthening the muscles of the lower leg. You want to strengthen your tibialis anterior muscle primarily as this is the pain are but also look to strengthen the muscles of the calf as well. 

Do light exercises with bodyweight or therabands for light resistance. As the muscles get stronger, you can increase the resistance. 

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15) Head to the Sandpit

Performing various drills and plyometric type exercises in the sandpit is a great way to strengthen your ankles and shins so that overuse injuries are less likely to occur.

The great thing about this type of training is that it is low impact, which is whats needed when you are suffering from shin splints.

The sand provides an increased resistance that increases the workload that the muscles are used to.

The instability of the sand strengthens the muscles that stabilise the joints of the ankles, knees and hips.

Added benefits of this type of training include a greater range of motion and improved balance.

Sandpit Exercises

So there you have it… 15 tips from the guys in the know on how to alleviate or prevent shin splints that you can begin to apply right away.

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