Low Impact, High Results: How to Avoid Those Dang Shin Splints

Avoiding Shin Splints

Low Impact, High Results:

How to Avoid Those Dang Shin Splints

The most common nagging injury/concern when I assess new clients is some form of "I get bad shin splints when I run". It's one of the few things that's across the board from high-schoolers through older adults and it's NOT an epidemic. It is, however, a great example of exercise and physiology adaptation at layman level. It's a too much too soon scenario that can easily be prevented.

Everyone knows how it goes... Person X (let's call him or her Chris) has decided to finally commit to an exercise plan after several months of being off the proverbial wagon, dealing with this, that and the other. Chris ran cross country back in high school in 2004 and rediscovered a love for running a few years ago getting in shape for a class reunion. Chris wakes up the morning of Day 1 of the new program and busts out 3 miles before breakfast, feeling like boss and dripping in beads of sweat signifying a job well done. Here's the problem... Chris wakes up the morning of Day 2 and starts the highly anticipated follow-up run only to find lower legs screaming for mercy. Thinking it was just a bad day, Chris goes out on Day 3 at the same time –extra motivated– and tries again to the same result and the same disappointment. Now, Chris is "not able to workout" because running is all Chris knows and weight training is unfamiliar territory. Chris stays fat.

Okay, I know that story ended abruptly and seemed awfully hard on Chris, but, a) Chris does not exist and b) I see similar variations of this story all too often. Chris' head was in the right place, but he or she did not embrace a fundamental rule of restarting exercise. Call it how you will: gearing back up... getting back in the swing of things... jumping back into a good routine...

Instead, there should be more of a gradual reintroduction to (in this case) a run routine. Same goes for any other type of impactful activity. Impact is certainly good for our bones, but the type, frequency, and degree-of-impact should all be things to consider if you're in this for the long haul; hopefully that being the case!

If Chris came to me, I would have recommended starting with something like 1 mile on Day 1, doing another form of exercise on Day 2, and then increasing to 1.5 or 2 miles on Day 3 (and so on...). No offense to Chris' athletic background, but the skeleton has been used on couches watching nightly Netflix and not banging concrete for the past however long.

The same concept can be applied to most exercise in general, but not being able to lift as much at the gym is not as consequential and painful lower legs whenever you try and run, or even walk(!) depending how bad they are. Pushing through the pain also ain't a good idea... what you're feeling can be the beginning of something much worse, i.e., a stress fracture, and that sucker will put you out-of-play for awhile.

The heck are shin splints anyway?

The pain associated with shin splints results from excessive amounts of force on the shin bone and the tissues attaching the shin bone to the muscles surrounding it. The excessive force causes the muscles to swell and increases the pressure against the bone, leading to pain and inflammation [healthline.com].

The key word there being 'excessive'. That can mean too much amidst an intense training routine with someone already extremely fit -OR- too much too soon, as with poor Chris described above.

I'm not writing this to scare anybody nor present a problem without solution.

[Enter] low-impact exercise.

low impact exercise

This could be rowing, biking, swimming, elliptical, water aerobics, golf, and more... The theme being easy on the joints and connective tissues but still enough to increase heart rate and be active.

I recommend incorporating low-impact workouts into the routine of every single client I work with. I'd say about 90% really need it, while the other 10% it's used as an active recovery method and to help prevent overuse. It doesn't matter whether you're in your golden years and need to stay functional, a young athlete looking to get to the next level, or somewhere in between. Low-impact is for every body.

exercise plan

The practice of incorporating low-impact activity is a great way to create a balanced exercise routine that's made to last. The chances of burnout (or burning out sooner) are greatly increased if someone does not incorporate at least a day or two each training week. Best practice is to alternate days with something that's higher impact, be it running, intense sports, skydiving, or whatever. This allows some bone and tissue recovery while staying active and staying in routine.

For many middle-age and older adults, low-impact exercise is the only type that I can prescribe. Arthritis is crazy prevalent and while you shouldn't avoid exercise with arthritis, it's a real nuisance when you're trying to do things that are good for your body and always feel like you're doing the opposite. From 2013–2015, an estimated 54.4 million US adults (22.7%) annually had ever been told by a doctor that they had some form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia [cdc.gov].

Where an activity sits on the impact scale is best left to your own judgment. I know you're smart because you've enjoyed this post enough to have gotten this far (heh heh)! There's no way to really objectify this so it's ultimately how you feel and perceive it based on my examples above. Hiking, for example, is kind of a tweener for me... it certainly can be higher impact, but it can also be easy, depending on the environment and your rate of speed. As with anything, don't overthink it!

If you're looking for advice on how to incorporate low-impact activity smartly into your routine, message me about my online coaching and custom exercise plans.


Tread lightly and you will hit it hard for a long time. Sayonara, shin splints!