Ever experience a sharp pain between your ankle and knee when you’re running? That might be a shin splint, a form of muscle strain that is especially common among those who are picking up jogging or running as an exercise routine for the first time.

When you develop a shin splint, what has happened is that muscle tissue connected to your tibia (the large and long lower leg bone responsible for supporting most of your body weight while standing) has been strained by an impact or load that it wasn’t capable of handling. You’ll notice this pain as you move about, potentially for as long as a few weeks. Once you’ve experienced a shin splint, running is completely out while the injury heals.

A number of different things can cause a shin splint, but the most common cause is muscle imbalance and asymmetry. Even light jogging can potentially cause a shin splint if enough factors line up to strain your muscles. Read below to learn more about the causes of shin splints and how you can properly prepare for them.

Stretch Your Calves Out Before Any Running

Shin splints can actually be caused by an imbalance of strength in the muscles around the tibia, or a failure to warm them all up properly before you begin. Most people remember to do thigh stretches before running, since that’s where most of the burn is usually felt, but they might overlook the calves. Improperly stretched calves can definitely be directly responsible for your shin splints so it’s important to stretch them properly. Runner’s World has an excellent illustrated article showing how to perform these stretches.

Strengthen The Dorsiflexors, Hips And Core Before Running

Dorsiflexors are the muscles that allow you to flex the ankle and move your toes. Weak dorsiflexors are a major contributor to the development of shin splints while running.

A quick test to see how far your dorsiflexors are is to simply run for a little while in an area with other people who are running. If you notice your feet are slapping the ground much harder than the people who look like committed joggers, you have underdeveloped dorsiflexors and should strengthen them up before beginning a running regimen. Livestrong suggests a number of good exercises for pumping these muscles up that you can do at home.

A stronger core and hips will also help to reduce the load on the tibia. TrainingPeaks has some excellent examples that will work both.

Don’t Run On Pavement

Both concrete and asphalt contribute to shock on your tibia muscles since they have virtually no give. It’s best to run on a dirt trail, grass or a running track to avoid shin splints. It also helps for your running surface to be as level as possible through its full length as slopes increase the pressure on both your tibia and dorsiflexor muscles. If you absolutely have to run on pavement, invest in some good sneakers that will absorb and displace the brunt of the shock your feet are taking.

Practice Proper Running Technique

Technique plays a very big role in the development of shin splints. One major cause is simply pushing too hard due to a misguided “no pain, no gain” mentality. There shouldn’t be pain in your shins even when running for a long period, and if there is, you should stop running immediately before an injury develops.

Ideal form has you moving forward by pushing your feet into the ground, rather than taking long strides and trying to pull yourself forward with your legs. You should also have an upright but relaxed upper body with your elbows carried at a right angle. Your feet should land as close to directly beneath your body as possible; the farther forward or back they are, the more strain is put on your lower leg muscles.

It also helps to count cadence (the number of steps you take in a minute). The ideal running pace is 180 steps per minute. There are a number of different apps designed for running that can help with this.

Sources:

http://www.runnersworld.com/injury-prevention-recovery/how-to-take-care-of-your-calves

http://www.livestrong.com/article/337629-ankle-plantar-dorsiflexion-exercises/

http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/7-hip-and-core-exercises-for-endurance-athletes

http://www.runningmetronome.org/top-5-running-apps/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11782644

http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00407

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2386425/