Shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), are a frequently reported problem among athletes, specifically endurance athletes.
What are shin splints?
Shin splints can occur when the layer of connective tissue that covers the surface of the shin bone (periosteum) becomes inflamed or irritated.
Many people describe it as a diffuse, dull ache along the inner border of the shin (tibia). It’s normally worse after running or weight-bearing activity and some triathletes will report feeling the same type of pain when out of the saddle on the bike. But if you ignore the pain it can become sharp and acute, limiting your ability to train.
Above: This is an MRI scan of the lower leg. The bright areas around the tibia indicate signs of shin splints.
What causes shin splints?
Shin pain is often difficult to treat as there are so many factors that contribute to the pain, making every individual’s diagnosis and treatment plan slightly different.
If you’re experiencing ongoing/worsening shin pain, the most important thing to do is consult a physiotherapist to rule out more serious problems, like stress fractures or compartment syndrome.
■ Poor conditioning/muscular endurance around the shin and lower limb.
■ Excessive range and speed of foot pronation.
■ Alteration in training, suddenly increasing distance, pace, terrain.
■ Incorrect footwear.
■ Poor muscle function around the hip and knee, overloading the shin.
As shin pain is normally associated with impact, your swimming and cycling training should be pain-free and therefore fine to continue as normal. If painful, you can easily reduce the load by taking out the push-off-the-wall when swimming and staying in the saddle during your rides.
What can you do about shin splints?
First, look at your training programme and make sure any changes in your run are done with a gradual build (volume and pace).
Make sure your shoes work for you. Training shoes should be replaced regularly to ensure they’re not wearing down and that the sole remains effective at absorbing and returning force. If your shin pain is ongoing, it may be useful to see a podiatrist who will assess the biomechanics around your feet and may design you some insoles to help control any movements that are putting extra stresses through the shin.
As mentioned, poor conditioning of the lower limb can be a factor, so on the PDF below I’ve outlined exercises you can undertake to condition all the muscles that have an effect on the shin mechanics.
The first four exercises will build not only strength, but the endurance of these muscles, essential for 5km and 10km running. It’s advised to do all four exercises to fatigue/failure. The exercises are technique-based and you should do as many as possible up to 3 x 25 reps, but stop if technique fails. Don’t worry if you can only manage half to start with. Build up slowly, running them all every day if you already suffer from shin splints.
Complete the two final stretching exercises immediately after, and do as much as you think necessary for your specific needs.
Download Emma Deakin’s exercises to prevent shin splints
For lots more advice on dealing with injury head to our Training section