Almost every runner is familiar with shin splints, whether they have personally suffered through the condition themselves at one time or another or they have a fellow running buddy who has.
Tight shins when running is unfortunately common, particularly among beginner runners, but there are plenty of experienced runners who find themselves battling tight shins when running from time to time as well.
In this guide, we will discuss what causes tight shins when running, what to do about it, and how to prevent shin pain when running.
We will look at:
- Why Do My Shins Hurt When I Run?
- Tight Shins When Running? Here’s Why
- How to Treat and Prevent Shin Pain When Running
Let’s jump in!
Why Do My Shins Hurt When I Run?
Many runners complain of painful or tight shins when running. Although we often refer to shin pain during running as “shin splints,” this is less of an actual diagnosis or specific condition and more of an umbrella term that may describe several different causes of tight shins when running.
Shin pain in runners can have four potential primary origins: muscular, bony, neural, and vascular.
Muscular Causes of Shin Pain in Runners
Tight shins when running is often caused by excessive tightness or a strain to the muscles in the medial compartment of the shin (inner side of the front of the shin) or an irritation of the connective tissue sheath (called the periosteum) that connects these muscles to the tibia bone below.
Overworking these muscles—such as tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior—can strain the muscles or the periosteum, leading to irritation and inflammation, which can cause pain when running.
Bony Causes of Shin Pain in Runners
Runners can develop stress injuries, such as medial tibial stress syndrome, stress reactions, and stress fractures, in either one of the two long bones in the shin, the larger tibia, which is in the inside, or the smaller fibula, which is on the outside of the leg.
Tibial stress fractures are more common in runners than fibular ones because the tibia absorbs the majority of the weight upon loading.
Stress injuries result due to overuse, when the rate of stress applied to them exceeds the rate at which they can adapt and remodel.
Nerve and Vascular Causes of Shin Pain in Runners
Runners can also develop various nerve entrapments that can cause painful or tight shins when running. The most common issue is compartment syndrome, in which pressure builds up in the tight, muscular compartments of the shin. This sometimes requires surgical intervention to relieve.
Tight Shins When Running? Here’s Why
So, we’ve discussed a few of the root causes, or potential diagnoses underlying shin pain from running, but how do these occur? What causes shin injuries in runners?
Below are eight common reasons that runners experience tight shins when running or shin splints of some sort or another:
#1: Shin Pain Can Occur From Doing Too Much Too Soon
Shin splints are particularly common among beginner runners who ramp up their mileage too quickly. The muscles in the lower leg are small and relatively weak, but running requires them to work hard with every step to control the motion of the foot and ankle.
Muscles like the tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior suffer microtears when you run, but this damage can fail to heal between runs if you run too much too soon without adequate recovery time. The muscles and periosteum can become inflamed, leading to tight shins when running.
Even experienced runners can suffer from shin splints if they increase their volume significantly or make other sudden changes to their training routine. When the rate of tissue damage exceeds the rate of recovery and repair, injuries can ensue.
#2: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Running In Old Shoes
Worn out or unsupportive shoes can lack the cushioning and support needed to keep your body healthy.
Shoes that do not properly control pronation of the foot will make the tibialis posterior need to work extra hard to control the foot, ankle, and arch.This can strain the muscle and cause inflammation and injury.
#3: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Tight Calves
When your calves are tight, it can cause the muscles in the front of the shin to be overstretched. Chronic overstretching or eccentric contractions of the shin muscles can lead to micro tears and inflammation.
#4: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Heel Striking
Heel striking, which can be due to overstriding, transmits more impact stress up the shin than a more forward-propulsive midfoot striking pattern.
Heel striking can also occur if you wear running shoes with a large heel drop, which can lead to the heel hitting the ground first. Switching to a zero drop running shoe can promote midfoot striking, and can reduce the impact shock traveling up the skeletal structures of the leg.
#5: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Hard Running Surfaces
Running on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt can cause shin pain in runners. These surfaces have very little give and transfer more impact shock up the leg than softer running surfaces like grass, cinder, and trails.
Mixing up the surfaces and terrain you run on can help prevent overuse injuries, such as shin splints, because the variety alters the muscular workload and application of stress on bones and connective issues.
#6: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Running On Cambered Roads
Cambered roads are sloped from side to side to allow water drainage. However, this slope is usually most significant in the shoulder of the road where runners are running.
Running on a cambered road tilts the pelvis and lifts one hip higher than the other, which can cause excessive stress on one of the legs. Some runners develop shin splints or stress injuries from chronically training on uneven roads.
#7: Shin Pain Can Be Caused By Overpronation
One of the most common biomechanical causes of shin splints in runners is overpronation, which refers to excessive rolling in of the feet.
When the foot overpronates upon landing, the arch collapses and the ankles roll in, placing a torsional stress on the shin. This overstresses and over-stretches the muscles in the shin that control pronation, such as the tibialis posterior.
This can be a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario. If your feet are flat and overpronate, it can cause excessive strain on the tibialis posterior, but likewise, if your tibialis posterior is weak, it can cause overpronation of the foot because the muscle lacks the strength needed to control pronation.
#8: Shin Pain Can Be Caused Weak Hip Abductors
The muscles on the lateral portion of the glutes, namely gluteus medius, play a key role in controlling the alignment of the entire lower limb. Weakness in these muscles can cause the legs to roll inward, leading a pattern of inner stress down the kinetic chain through the knees, shins, and feet.
Weak hip abductors can cause shin splints by causing the knees to collapse inward and allowing an overpronation and an excessive demand on the muscles in the lower leg to control this inward rotation. Overworking the shin muscles can cause the muscular strain and periosteum damage associated with shin splints.
How to Treat and Prevent Shin Pain When Running
Treating shin pain or tight shins when running comes down to resolving whatever issue is causing the problem. In most cases, the general principles of RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) are helpful as this conservative treatment protocol can help reduce inflammation.
The following are additional tips to treat and prevent tight shins and common causes of shin splints in runners:
- Change your running shoes every 300-500 miles. Make sure your shoes provide adequate support to your arch and prevent overpronation. Studies show that rotating your running shoes can also keep them fresh and may help prevent injuries.
- Run on softer surfaces like grass, trails, or cushioned treadmills.
- Progress mileage and intensity gradually. Heed the 10% rule, meaning you should only increase your mileage by a maximum of 10% from one week to the next. For example, if you are currently running 25 miles a week, run no more than 27.5 miles next week.
- Stretch your calves several times per day.
- Soft tissue work like dry needling and myofascial release can aid recovery and release trigger points and can help with tight calves.
- Strengthen your hip abductors and lower leg muscles. Exercises like clam shells, resistance band side steps, and lateral leg raises are great for strengthening the gluteus medius. Heel raises, toe raises, single-leg balance, and foot doming exercises can strengthen the lower leg musculature.
- Avoid cambered roads, if possible.
- Cross-train with low-impact activities like cycling, elliptical, rowing, deep water running, and swimming while your shins heal.
- Work on your running form. Experiment with shortening your stride and increasing your cadence to reduce heel striking.
Have you dealt with shin splints or tight shins when running? What has worked for you?
To keep those calves nice and stretched out after every run, take a look at our Best Calf Stretches For Runners Guide!