It’s very common to experience shin pain after running. There are many different causes of shin pain and this article will highlight the three most common issues runners and athletes experience. Shin splints, stress fractures and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are often experienced by runners and people who play sports like football, basketball and athletics. This article will explore how the common causes of shin pain after running occur, how to prevent them and how to treat them.
Different types of shin pain that can occur
Here are the three most common types of shin pain that can develop after running.
Shin splints are one of the most common causes of shin pain after running. People who play sports that involve running, such as basketball, football and netball are also vulnerable to the condition. Shin splint pain is caused by multiple small tears in the muscles of the lower leg. When the muscles in the shin become weakened by the tears, they can’t provide support to nearby tendons which can then also suffer tears and injury. The ongoing inflammation and stress on the lower leg bones can culminate in very sore lower legs.
Shin splints have multiple common causes. New runners are likely to experience shin splints as the muscles in the lower leg are unprepared for the additional impact and stress of running. The same stress will apply to people who start a sport for the first time, or after a long period of inactivity. Sports players may cause additional stress on the lower legs if sudden stops, pivots or direct impacts (from balls, sticks or other players) are frequent.
Shin splints can also be caused or made worse by wearing unsupportive shoes during exercise, as can running on hard surfaces like concrete, having consistently poor gait or overpronation. New runners are particularly prone to shin splints when they undertake an ambitious training program and don’t take time to build up muscle strength.
Shin splints can feel worse at the beginning of a training session while the muscles in the lower leg are still cold and stiff. As the muscles warm up, they relax, reducing pressure on the tendon which can help alleviate pain and discomfort. If the pain does not dissipate during training but persists, stress fractures may be the cause of shin pain after running.
Persistent shin pain after running can be caused by stress fractures in the tibia, the shin bone. Stress fractures are small thin cracks in the surface of bones. These tiny breaks are very painful and can weaken the condition of the bone overall. Stress fractures can develop through different causes. If a runner develops shin splints but chooses to continue training, the ongoing degradation of the muscles and tendon can lead to the shin bone being unsupported. When the muscles and tendons are too inflamed to protect and support the bone and absorb impact shock the bone can suffer. Repeated force over time from running can cause the bone to develop the tiny and painful fractures.
Stress fractures can also develop through overtraining and inadequate recovery periods. They can also occur if an athlete suddenly changes from training on soft surfaces to hard surfaces. For example, a football player may usually train and run on grass. If the player starts doing training runs on concrete paths a stress fracture may develop. Along with the increased impact stress of foot strikes on hard surfaces, a change in training location may also indicate a change in training strategy. If the training load is suddenly increased without forethought stress fractures can occur, depending on the person, the situation and the density of the bone in the first place.
Unlike shin splints, pain associated with or caused by stress fractures will not fade away as the training session progresses. The pain will persist until the activity is stopped, and then will slowly subside once the bone is resting.
Delayed onset muscle soreness
This type of running injury isn’t restricted to the lower leg but often is felt as shin pain. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS is muscle pain that manifests in the hours or days after a training session is completed. In particular, DOMS can be felt after a significantly intense or unusual exercise experience, where the muscle groups are challenged in an unfamiliar way. DOMS may develop in runners and athletes that have not trained for a long time or who conduct similar exercises or drills repeatedly. It’s suggested that the dull ache of DOMS may be caused by the release of intramuscular fluid that irritates nerve endings within the muscles. This ache may develop in muscles in the lower leg which can cause shin pain.
Why/how running can cause shin pain
Running usually offers many health benefits to people but there is a risk that injuries and pain can be experienced during and after training. Shin pain is a very common complaint. Running puts stress on the lower body and if training isn’t managed correctly shin pain after running can result.
Shin pain after running can occur if the training load is increased too quickly. Inexperienced runners may increase distance, speed and frequency of runs beyond the capacity of their bodies. When muscles are not adequately prepared, they can be more susceptible to tears and strains.
Pain in the shins can also develop if poor quality running shoes are used. Running shoes should provide cushioning and support which helps to keep the feet positioned correctly during runs. Even the best quality running shoes have a lifespan of around 500 miles. As shoes age they become less supportive and injuries may develop if they are not replaced in a timely manner.
Tips/Running techniques/best practices to avoid shin pain
It is not always possible to avoid developing shin pain after running but there are many strategies runners and sport players can use to reduce the possibility.
- Races should be selected with enough time to adequately train and prepare. Distance and time spent running should increase by a maximum of 10% each week,
- Legs should be warmed up well before starting, especially if focussing on faster running speeds,
- Cooling down and stretching after a run helps to prevent stiffness and pain,
- Overtraining prevents muscles from healing and can promote shin pain and injury. Adequate rest periods between training sessions allows the muscles to repair,
- Sudden changes in running surfaces should be done slowly with shorter distances being attempted before longer efforts,
- Cross training in between runs can strengthen supporting muscle groups, which could reduce the overall chance of injury. Strengthen the supporting musculature and tendons in the upper legs and knees can support the lower legs,
- Healing can be encouraged by consuming a healthy well-balanced diet. Providing nutrients to the muscles will help recovery. Female athletes can be susceptible to weaker bones and osteoporosis so working with a sports dietician may help to maintain bone density.
Treatment for different types of shin pain
The treatment strategies for shin splints will vary according to circumstance. For example, if a person begins training after a long period of inactivity, a certain amount of soreness may be expected as the body adapts to a new workload. In these cases, it may take some time for the body to build strength, and a small tolerable level of pain may be borne until adaptation occurs. However, if the pain does not subside after training has continued, there are methods to use to treat shin splints after running.
Running training should stop for between 2-4 weeks to allow the muscles and tendons to fully recover. This may alarm runners who are preparing for a competition season, but lower-impact cross-training options can be used to maintain fitness, such as swimming or stationary cycling. If a person wants to continue running, shorter runs are recommended. Some people find running on inclines to be more comfortable. Soft running surfaces like grass, rubber running tracks or well-kept trails may also help reduce impact forces.
To treat acute shin splint pain, apply ice or a cold pack where the pain is located for up to 15 minutes at a time, up to three times per day. NSAIDs like ibuprofen may also help reduce pain and inflammation when taken according to medical advice. Cold treatment can also be applied as soon as the training session is over. At all times, a cold pack should have a towel or other barrier wrapped around it to prevent it from coming into direct contact with the skin.
Diagnosing stress fractures can be difficult. Because they are so fine, they sometimes do not show up on x-rays. Some doctors will use CT or MRI technology to confirm stress fractures exist. The pain may also be evident for weeks before the stress fractures will be visible on medical technology. Home-based treatment strategies may be implemented when pain is felt, even if a diagnosis of stress fractures is not yet available.
Rest is the most critical treatment for stress fractures as it can take 6-8 weeks for them to heal. People who enjoy sports often find this difficult to comply with, but stress fractures cannot heal without periods of immobilisation and rest. If running or sports are continued when active fractures are present, they may develop into more significant breaks. Not all stress fractures develop into complete bone breaks, but chronic long-term issues can result if the stress fractures are not rested immediately after diagnosis. It may be useful to consult a team of health professionals to both heal the injury and prescribe changes that will be required in training and biomechanics to prevent the injury recurring.
Delayed onset muscle soreness can be a source of frustration as the pain occurs separately from the training session itself. The painful effects can last for days and can impact a person’s ability to move comfortably. Usually, DOMS will fade without treatment if the muscles are rested as much as possible over the course of a few days. Optionally, ice or cold packs can be applied to help reduce inflammation, and NSAIDS such as ibuprofen may also help manage pain. Rest is the most commonly used treatment for DOMS. Muscles can feel very tight and patients may experience limited range of motion and discomfort, so regular training should be deferred or discontinued until the pain has passed. Avoid deep tissue massage and other vigorous activity that taxes the affected muscles until the muscles have healed.
How insoles can help reduce shin pain/prevent it from occurring in the first place by absorbing shock and pressure during running
Shin pain after running can be reduced by using strategic training schedules, but it’s not always enough. Some runners and athletes would prefer to continue a modified training plan while experiencing shin pain, and others may plan to avoid it from the outset of training.
No matter the cause of shin pain, the addition of sports performance insoles can make a measurable difference in the quality of training and the frequency of shin pain. Insoles can provide arch support and correct foot placement, which may improve gait. In addition, high quality insoles are constructed with technical materials designed to deflect the impact of running on hard surfaces. The energy from foot strikes on concrete is reflected to the ground rather than being directed up to the muscles of the lower leg. This alone can help manage surface transition training and can reduce overall fatigue.
Using insoles should provide support and cushioning during both running and sports. Basketball, football and netball players should also notice a reduction in shin pain caused by sudden stopping and pivoting common to those sports.
Running offers a lot of benefits. It can improve health, fitness and mental health, too. It’s not without risk however, and physical injuries like shin pain after running are common. Paying attention to the details of when symptoms appear and fade, along with medical advice can help to diagnose the cause of shin pain. Treatment plans can often begin at home, particularly as ice treatments and rest are universal applications that are unlikely to be misapplied. Avoiding and treating shin pain after running can be achieved with a combination of strategic training, high quality insoles and shoes, and post-run stretching.