They’re kind of the worst.
It feels like you should be handed an award when you decide to step up your running game (hello, you just dominated six whole miles!).
In reality, you might just be left with some nasty shin splints—especially if you go all in too soon.
“It’s one of the most common things I see in my office,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of Running Strong.
Pesky shin splints occur when the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia become inflamed during repetitive movements like running, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The pain along your shinbone may be sharp or throbbing. “You know you have it if, when you push on your shinbone after a run, it’s sore,” says Metzl. Another tip-off: The pain is causing you to change your stride.
(One note: If there’s no pain when you touch the bone, but there’s tightness when you run, that could be what’s called exertional compartment syndrome, which is something else entirely and requires a doctor visit.)
Why the heck did I get shin splints?
Most likely, you ramped up the mileage too quickly, which can irritate the shinbone, says Metzl.
Transitioning from treadmill to outdoor running or not wearing the right shoes can also contribute to shin splints, says Nicole Hengels, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S.), marathon runner, and owner and founder of Momentum of Milwaukee.
Ditto if you do a lot of road running, says Jessalynn Adam, M.D., attending physician in sports medicine at Mercy Medical Center. Roads tend to have a slope near the side (where you run) to help water run off, but it also means you’re running on an uneven surface—and that can set you up for shin splints.
Shin splints may also be indicative that something is off with your running mechanics. “Most commonly, a runner’s feet are flat and rolling in,” says Metzl. This is known as pronating. Or, your running stride is too long. “You might feel like you’re running like a gazelle, but this puts more loading force on shins,” he says.
Your bone density may also be low, says Metzl. This can be caused by genetics, dietary problems (if you don’t get enough calcium or vitamin D), or hormonal issues.
Can I prevent shin pain?
If you’re a beginner or you’re training for a race, increasing mileage slowly will help prevent shin splints, says Rachel Triche, M.D., sports medicine specialist, orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon, and team physician for the U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team.
“You want to cross-train at the same time to make sure you’re not doing too much, too soon,” she says, which means activities like biking, swimming, strength training. And, as a general rule, don’t increase your mileage more than 10 percent each week.
More than that, you’ve got to correct your running mechanics—otherwise, it’s pretty much guaranteed those shin splints will come back to haunt you. “Staying off your feet will fix the pain, but not the cause,” says Metzl.