What causes shin splints when running?

Girl tying a shoelace with shin splints shown in red

Do you have shin splints? 

Are you a runner? Then you've probably had or heard of someone with "shin splints."

This injury can range from a slight tickle in the general shin area all the way through to excruciating pain. So, why the significant range of pain? To understand this, we want to dive into what causes shin splints when running.

What are shin splints?

We go into this in more depth in this article; however, for a quick overview, shin splints is an umbrella term for quite a few lower leg injuries. These can range from a biomechanical overload of specific muscles surrounding the shin all the way through to stress fractures.

The most common form of shin splints is known as "medial tibial stress syndrome", which feels like a dull ache or burn in the lower third of your leg along the inside border of the shin bone. Think the same side as your big toes along the third of the bone closest to your ankle.

By no means is the above meant to be a diagnosis - I highly recommend you talk to a healthcare professional to determine your injury so you can get treated correctly.

But, what causes shin splints?

Irrespective of the injury that falls under this umbrella term, there are three common causes:

  1. Overuse
  2. Lack of strength
  3. Lack of mobility

While these don't often encapsulate the entire reason for the injury, they are a good starting point.

Overuse: too much too soon!

Overuse injuries like shin splints are widespread in runners. However, as highlighted in this article, being too passionate is a problem. This sounds ridiculous, right? Surely, you have to be motivated to be a good runner?

Where passion becomes a problem is when you ignore the onset of a niggle, tell yourself it will be fine. With injuries like medial tibial stress syndrome, if you fail to recognise the early onset of the injury, you can make it far worse for yourself, often causing a tibial stress fracture.

It is important to chat to a professional about a graded running program that helps you build up your resilience to a new running load. It's not like flicking a light switch. Some studies highlight you should only increase your mileage by 10-15% per week to avoid overuse injuries.

Lack of strength

Did you know one of your calf muscles, the soleus, absorbs up to 8 times your body weight when you run? That is just one reason to make sure you are doing bent-knee calf raises, to build the strength of that muscle so it can adequately absorb the load.

In running, being strong is essential. So if you're interested in exploring a broad range of easy at-home exercises, check out this article.

Lack of mobility 

Having poor ankle mobility is a known risk factor for shin splints. If you cannot achieve a suitable range of motion, the forces are believed to disperse incorrectly. Poor ankle mobility is also linked to a variety of other injuries, such as patellofemoral syndrome.

But are your sore calves tight calves? Being sore is often mistaken for being tight. In this article, I run through this and the knee to wall assessment so you can determine if you are, in fact, tight or if your calves are just sore. 


Shin splints is an umbrella term. In this article, I have tried to talk about three common causes of the injuries under that umbrella term. If you believe you have medial tibial stress syndrome, please check out this article, where I go into more depth on the causes for that specific injury. 

Related Articles:

About the author:

Ben Lindsay is the Managing Director and engineer behind the Solushin medical device. A former national medalist swimmer, Ben aspires to learn from physicians, physiotherapists and podiatrists so he can develop tools to improve the quality of care for their patients.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published