I know firsthand just how frustrating shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome) can be, and how easily your running can be interrupted by this type of shin pain. If you’re currently suffering from shin splints, here’s what you need to know about the usual recovery time:
As a guide, you should expect it to take two to six weeks to recover from shin splints. Runners with more irritable shin pain may take up to six months to fully heal. Runners who rest their shins as soon as symptoms begin usually return to pain-free running more quickly.
The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to quicken your shin splints recovery time. A proactive approach to your recovery will help your shin splints heal, allowing you to return to running sooner.
Shin splints is often used as a catch-all term to describe many different types of shin pain. However in this article, I’m going to be referring to medial tibial stress syndrome when using the term “shin splints”.
This common injury amongst runners is caused by an overloading of the shin bone (tibia) tissue, particularly the inner aspect (medial side).
Such overloading in the case of runners is caused by the repetitive stress and impact of running itself.
Let’s take a look at some important factors and common questions that will dictate how quickly you can expect to recover from shin splints…
How long should you rest from running when you have shin splints?
If you begin to experience shin pain caused by shin splints, take a two week rest from running. This break from running will give your tibia (shin bone) the best chance of healing without the added loading of running.
During this two week rest from running, consider low-impact forms of cross training such as cycling, swimming, using the elliptical trainer, or simply focusing on run-specific strength training.
As frustrating as it is to rest from running for two weeks at the first sign of shin splints, you should know that it’s an injury that quickly gets worse if you try to continue running through it.
At the extreme end of the scale, running with shin splints will result in painful tibial stress fractures.
Stress fractures like these are not uncommon in military recruits who have significant external pressures to “push through the pain” and continue to run through their shin pain.
You don’t need stress fractures in your life. Trust me.
Best take two weeks off now, rather than wish you had done so six months from now!
The Hop Test for Running After Shin Splints
At the end of your two week rest from running, your shins should no longer feel tender to touch, and you should be able to hop pain-free 12 times on the affected leg. Thanks to physio Brad Beer for introducing me to this test!
If you still experience tenderness to touch, or you are unable to pass the “hop test”, then you should take another 1-2 weeks rest from running, then re-test. Repeat this process until you can complete the hop test pain free. Use this as your simple return to running criteria.
As you return to running after shin splints, it is important that you slowly and gradually rebuild both the duration of each individual run, and the weekly volume of your running. Your shins need time to adapt to the stress of running once again.
Feel free to use this free return to running plan to guide your training as you start to run again after shin splints:
Do shin splints require surgery?
Treatment for shin splints does not typically require surgery. Shin splints, as with most bone stress injuries typically respond very well to rest and subsequent load management as you return to running.
However, if your shin pain returns as soon you start running after shin splints, having taken the recommended rest, it would be sensible to consider other potential causes for your shin pain, beyond shin splints. Injuries such as tibialis posterior tendinopathy and compartment syndrome can cause shin pain in runners.
In cases where compartment syndrome is the underlying cause of shin pain with running, surgery may be required as a solution if other treatment methods fail.
Will your shin splints get worse if you continue to run?
As previously mentioned in this article, shin splints is not an injury you can continue to run through.
If you continue to run with shin splints, doing so will at best slow your recovery and prolong the shin pain. At worst, it will result in tibial stress fractures and a much longer period of rest from running.
Of course, that’s easy advice to give…
But what if you’re training for a marathon in 6 weeks time?
This is the exact situation I’ve helped runners through many times over the years. As the peak weeks of marathon training kick-in, your shins begin to hurt…
What should you do?
Well, knowing that the ideal answer is to stop and rest for two weeks, the practical solution may look a little more like this:
- First, you must commit to taking as long as you need for your shins to recover after your marathon.
- For the remainder of your marathon training, reduce your number of runs per week by 1-2. This will give you more recovery time between each run.
- Replace your missed runs with low-load alternatives (such as cycling, or rowing). Often replacing a planned speed session with a HIIT workout on the bike or rowing machine, will give you a very similar workout.
- Focus on continuing to progress your weekly long run while allowing for more recovery before the following run.
- Try to vary the terrain you’re running on as much as possible, running on soft surfaces like grass where possible.
- Ensure that you’re doing everything you can to promote bone health, including lifestyle and nutrition factors. You can learn more about this here.
Ultimately, you should listen to your body. If you are able to maintain your shin pain at a level of 0-3 on a scale where 10 is the worst pain imaginable, by following the steps above, then as a therapist I’d be ok with you continuing to train for your marathon.
Just promise me that if you start to feel your shin spins getting more painful (>3/10), either during or after a run, you will stop immediately and take the two weeks off running.
If in the short term you’re able to modify your training and keep running, just know that while your shin splints aren’t getting worse, the injury is also not getting better.
At some point you will need to rest to allow the shin splints to heal once and for all.
What can you do for faster recovery from shin splints?
Your recovery time from shin splints is largely dependent on your ability and willingness to reduce loading on the tibia, by resting from running as the bone heals.
The more you can protect your injured shin from undue loading during the rest period, the faster you will recover from shin splints, and return to running successfully .
As such, please do resist the temptation to sneak out for “test runs” to see if the pain is gone. Commit to taking the two weeks rest before doing the hopping test mentioned earlier in this article, to see if your shin is ready for some light running.
That said, there are a number of things you can do to help you recover faster from shin splints and return to running.
1. Shin Splints Rehab Exercises
Although training errors are largely to blame for shin splints (doing too much, too soon), factors such as tight calves and single leg stability are often cited as being contributing factors.
You can use this period of rest from running to work on rehab exercises to strengthen your calves and improve both ankle and hip stability.
Here’s a video with some examples of exercises you might like to try
2. Soft Tissue Techniques for Shin Splints
Similarly, you may want to get a regular sports massage to work on any imbalances that might be contributing to your shin pain.
Alternatively, you can try some of the calf foam rolling techniques shown below to help work on any tightness you may feel. Just be sure to avoid the area of tenderness around your inner shins.
3. Daily Footwear for Shin Splints
In some cases, especially if you have a job that requires you to be on your feet all day (e.g. nursing), you should consider whether the shoes you wear for work have an impact on your shin splints. You may find that they do not offer enough support.
This is something you should speak to your physiotherapist about if you’re concerned, as everybody’s feet are different.
Pain relief for shin splints
If you have a particularly irritable and/or severe case of shin splints, you may want to consider some simple forms of pain relief.
The NHS recommends that you can take ibuprofen or paracetamol to help reduce the pain, and that applying ice to the painful area will also help with pain relief for shin splints.
Please DO NOT use pain relief methods, especially medication as a way to get through your next run and to persist with training. Doing so will simply mask your pain and allow the damage to the bone tissue to get much worse.
Remember, pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong and getting you to stop!
Change your running technique to cure shin splints
Beyond simply looking at your running training plan to determine what you need to change in your regular running weeks, so as to protect your shins, we can also consider your running technique.
It’s generally accepted that factors such as overstriding as you run, running with a low running cadence, and running with a cross-over gait can all contribute to more stress on the media tibia, and ultimately be part of the broader picture of biomechanical factors that lead to a runner getting shin splints.
The following video looks at the least commonly discussed factor of the three; running with a cross-over gait.
Of course, making changes to your running technique can take time and mental effort. However, there’s no better time to do so then during your return to running phase after an injury such as shin splints.
I do hope this article has helped you answer the question of how long it will take you to recover from shin splints, and also given you some ideas of things you can do to help yourself along the way.
Good luck with your recovery. I hope you get back to running pain-free soon!
Here’s an article you might find interesting about improving your running form…