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