How to Avoid Shin Splints and Stress Fractures

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Shin Happens

Shin pain sucks.  It’s so frustrating to feel that your fitness is improving but the small muscles in your shins are preventing you from becoming the runner you know you can be.

During my first three or four years as a runner, I was plagued by shin problems.  As soon as I began training for my first marathon, I developed shin splints.  Being a new runner and not knowing what might happen, I did my best to manage the pain and keep on training.  I even shaved the bottom six inches of my legs so that I could tightly wrap them in tape! This probably did more harm than good, and within a few months I was diagnosed with a tibial stress fracture and had to wear an aircast and stop training.  Against doctor’s orders, I ended up doing the marathon, though “running” isn’t the word I’d use to describe the second half of it.

I endured several more starts and stops over the next few years, each time committing to really run a marathon, and each time having to stop as my shin pain became unbearable with the increasing mileage.  Finally in 2006, after four years of frustration, I figured out the magic formula and ran the marathon I had — quite literally — dreamt about.  Since then, shin pain has become a non-issue, so far removed from my focus that the days of fighting it feel like part of another life.

Here’s a list of the things I did that allowed me to beat shin pain once and for all.  I’m sure that not all of them mattered, but it’s hard to know which helped and which didn’t.  I’ve put them in order of decreasing importance based on my gut feeling.

Disclaimer: this is what worked for me; everyone is different.  Do more research before incorporating these ideas into your training.

How to Avoid Shin Pain

  • Increase stride rate to around 180 steps per minute. You can measure your stride rate by counting the number of times a single foot hits the ground in a minute, then multiplying by two.  180 is the rate that most top endurance runners have.  Compared to a much lower rate, which I naturally had, taking 180 steps per minute forces you to run much “lighter,” the way you might run if you were running on eggshells.  The easiest way to train yourself to increase your stride rate?  Find a running song (see song #5) with about that tempo, or run on a treadmill and make sure that you take three steps per second.  It’s extremely awkward at first, but eventually it feels natural.
  • Minimize the number of hard workouts. A huge part of my problem was that I was going for too much, too fast.  Running hard puts more strain on your shins and creates acid in the body, which can weaken bones.  Build up a slow mileage base until you beat shin pain.  At the very least, don’t run hard two days in a row.  Mix in very slow runs and off days to let your shins recover.
  • Run almost exclusively on soft trails, tracks, or treadmills. I really enjoy pounding the pavement in the city.  But to get past shin pain, I made it a point to stick to the soft stuff.
  • Get neutral shoes, not stability shoes. When I first got fit for real running shoes, I was diagnosed as an overpronator and was told to run in stability shoes.  Sure enough, I still got injured.  When I bought my next pair, I based the decision solely on what felt most comfortable, and that happened to be a pair of neutral shoes.  Having since learned the rationale behind barefoot or almost-barefoot running, I’m not surprised that I responded better to neutral shoes than high-tech stability shoes.  To this day, I run in neutral shoes.
  • Do shin stretches after every run. I’m now of the belief that stretching doesn’t help prevent injury, but this was something I did at the time so I’m including it here.  After each run, I walked about 60 steps on my heels and did other shin stretches.
  • Take calcium supplements. This is another one that I now feel is of minimal importance.  I took calcium citrate pills to strengthen the bones in my shins, but based on what I now know about how the body absorbs supplements versus whole foods, I’d rather get the calcium through my diet than through pills.

A final word of advice: the best way for me to tell when I had “turned the corner” from shin splints to a (more-serious) stress fracture was that with the stress fracture, the pain was very localized.  I could identify a precise spot that was tender rather than a general area.  If you think you have a stress fracture, see a doctor and consider taking a few weeks off, since more activity will only worsen it.

And of course, a nice pair of Recovery Socks probably doesn’t hurt, so enter my giveaway before Saturday!  Recovery socks weren’t around back when I had shin pain, but they are purported to lessen the incidence of shin injuries by stimulating blood flow.

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!

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Comments

  1. Any time I get shin splints, it is usually from not having enough arch support. Once I got custom insoles that gave me enough support, no more shin splints. The stability shoes I run in haven’t been the problem!

  2. Great tips. I have been lucky so far and haven’t encountered much shin pain! Hopefully this keeps up :) But…I mean if you want to pick me as the winner of the socks…I’d be totally ok with that ;)
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Run, Work, Bake & Vote for Frank =-.

  3. Thanks so much for such an informative post! Thankfully, I’ve had no shin pain so far (can’t say the same for my hip or my can) but injury prevention is much more fun than injury treatment so I’ll keep all of this in mind!
    .-= katherine´s last blog ..Emotional Eating 101 – A Spark Wellness Teleclass Recap =-.

  4. I had the same problem when I started running, stress fractures from the ‘too much too soon’ plan I was following…

    I’ve only been running for about a year and a half so I still feel like I baby my shins… in the begining I iced them after running, along with the calf stretches I found that helped tremendously. I don’t ice any more but do have arch supports in my shoes because I have high arches and the standard ones that come with shoes isn’t enough.
    So my top 3 tips that work for me are:
    1) stretch after EVERY run
    2) arch supports
    3) rest day between runs

    I’m glad to see I’m not alone!!
    :o)

  5. I’m SO glad I’m not alone with this problem!! I developed shin splints in September after suddenly increasing the distance and frequency of my running. It was (is) so frustrating! I had a similar experience as you several years ago, with shin splints leading to a stress fracture – and I NEVER want to go through that again. I’ve found extra rest days, strength training, insoles and shin compression wraps (I use the ones by Pro-Tec) to be helpful – but I’m really intrigued by your suggestion about stride rate.
    .-= Amy (One Thousand Steps)´s last blog ..Second Opinions =-.

  6. GAH scary. Thanks for the advice. Shin pain sounds terrible.
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Welcome! =-.

  7. as a new runner, thanks for the tips that worked for you. I haven’t had too many issues yet, although I can definitely feel the muscle differently than before. I mostly have been feeling in in my lower calfs. Have a good holiday!!
    .-= EatingRD´s last blog ..just a few new finds =-.

  8. So I’ve been shortening my stride and doing the 180 strides per minute thing and I have to say that it’s working. I feel like I’m running faster with less effort. The tops of my thighs and glutes feel the burn more but I imagine that’s something that will ease up with time. I remember this tip from your “How I BQ’d” post – thanks for the reminder.
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..French Toast Torture =-.

  9. Thanks so much for this article! I had shin pain from running last year and had to take a long break. Before starting to run again, I got refitted for running shoes and was advised to try a neutral shoe instead of the stability shoes I had been wearing, and bingo! No more shin pain.

    It also helped that I started back slooooowly–any time I’ve tried to increase my distance too quickly, my shins have kicked back at me :-)
    .-= Laura Georgina´s last blog ..Two Months and 21 Days Until… =-.

  10. Reading your post I felt like I was reading my shin splint history! Shin splints kept me from really running to my ability for over four years. I’m just starting to get away from shin pain now and I’m training for my first marathon, but I’m scared they’re going to come back! I’ve done everything on your list and they’re all really helpful for shin pain, especially the quicker/lighter strides!
    .-= Caroline´s last blog ..A Thankful Thanksgiving =-.

  11. Some good suggestions here. I have been fighting shin pain since August and really think I’ll have to give up running altogether. My doctor thinks it’s my back and sent me to phys therapy. The PT really has hope for me, doesn’t think it’s my back, but I deal with pain every single day.

    I did not run for 3 months and no relief. I have orthotics, stretch everyday…..does anyone have any suggestions?

    • Elizabeth Hodges says:

      Sports deep-tissue massage worked for me. I had terrible shin splint pain (but no stress fracture) that refused to go away for about 5 months, despite rest, RICE, trips to the doctor, etc…and, amazingly, after two sessions with a specialized sports massage therapist, the pain was gone. It’s worth a shot, anyways!

  12. Jordan says:

    Thanks so much for the tips! I’m definitely a newbie runner…I’ve been running for about a year and completed two half-marathons and two 5Ks so far. I’m looking forward to years of races, and next on my agenda is a marathon for this fall. But for the past several months I’ve been dealing with shin pain. I had this sneaking suspicion that my Brooks Adrenalins were to blame. I got them around Christmastime after recommendation from a guy at a running store. He said they would provide the right support for my feet. Well, ever since then I’ve had nothing but problems. I have a new pair of Vibrams that I really want to start running primarily in, so hopefully that will help. I’ve taken the past several weeks off running to help my shins heal, and I finally went for a slow one-mile jog yesterday with no pain. I think I’m on the mend for real now. I will definitely bookmark this page for future reference. Thanks again!

  13. Julia Burke says:

    Hey, I really love your site! I am getting over shinsplints and am just starting to run again after taking a couple weeks off (just cross training on the bike), and I was wondering if you have any experience with taping or wrapping the shins? I taped my shins for one run and it seemed to help. Is it just hiding the pain, do you think, or could it be helping?

  14. Hi there. I’ve been vegan for about 8 months, and started training for my first marathon about 5 months ago. I’ve had to stop running in the last month, due to serious hip pain, which I found out today is a stress reaction (swollen bone) in my lesser trochanter, in the upper part of my femur where it connects to the hip. I believe I get enough calcium and other nutrients in my diet, and realize there are multiple factors at play (I wear stability shoes, etc). But definitely curious if I should be taking supplements or preferably making sure I’m eating certain types of food that will aid in my recovery. I’ll be missing the LA Marathon in March, but hoping to make it back to training in time for a half in June.

  15. I got some great stretched for my shin splints from a soccer player — but that actually only makes them feel better, it doesn’t make them go away. A triathelete friend of mine swears by using a resistance band to do toe lifts and strengthen the shins — any thoughts about/experience with that?

    • No, I can’t really say how that works because I haven’t tried it. But I do think that all the different exercises I did to strengthen my shins were mostly a waste — running alone should strengthen them plenty, unless you’re doing something else that’s causing injury. I think far more important was changing my running form and, to a lesser extent, the shoes and surface.

  16. I run in Vibram Minimus. They’re wonderful. But my shin pain is not. I even went to a doctor because i had no idea why I was in so so much pain. He did an x-ray and concluded that it was severe shin splints, but only on my right leg. I’m going to try out the recovery socks, but if anyone has any other tips, I’ll gladly take them! I’m training for a 5k, Yes, I just started running 2 months ago. I’ve had to take 1 week long break so far because of the pain. I’m on my second break, I’m not sure how long this one will be. Hopefully not too long, so I can get back to training!

  17. I’ve been fighting shin pain for years and the stride rate is something I want to try. I’m confused though. When you increase your rate, are you taking smaller strides more frequently, or are you taking the same strides at a faster pace? Can you elaborate on this a little more? I’m thinking since you’re trying to run “lighter” it would be smaller steps. Thanks for all the great info!

  18. You should really look into a golf ball muscle roller it really helped to reduced the pain and swelling that i could never get rid of in my legs http://zzathletics.com/Golf-Ball-Muscle-Roller-Massager-GBMR1.htm

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