Shin Splints? It Could Be Your Running Cadence

Jesse Hall, MTI Contributor

“I run and ruck about 35 miles per week, have been consistently doing that for 3 months, and I usually do a long run of at least a half marathon on the weekend. My goal is a 30-minute 5-mile run and a 2-hour 12-mile ruck,” the Ranger told me.

“Problem is though, I’ve been having shin splints whenever I run, right here *points to boot top level on his right shin* and I even had to cut a run short because of it. I’m only a month away from BRC (Best Ranger Competition), what do I do?”

“Well, are your shoes still good?,” I asked?

“They are only a couple of months old and I only wear them when I run… I think they are still good.”

“Okay, so what’s your cadence?,” I asked.

“My what?”

“Your running cadence… pull up your Garmin app and let me see your phone.”

I looked through his most recent runs and found an easy run of about 10 miles, clicked it, and scrolled through his stats to find his average running cadence: it was 160 steps per minute. 

Jackpot. His cadence was too slow.

“I think your cadence is too low and that’s why you’re having shin splints when you run,” I told him.

“Really? What’s a cadence?”

“Let’s go to the treadmill and I’ll show you.”

Whenever a soldier comes to see me with shin splints, the first thing I want to know about is their training history. 

Shin splints are simply an overuse injury, and they happen when running and rucking volume is higher than the volume that someone’s muscles and bones are adapted to. 

Picture going down a steep hill in your car. If you keep pressure on the brakes the entire time, the friction makes them get too hot and can damage the components. So, what you’re supposed to do is hold your brakes for a couple seconds, let go to let them recover, then go hard on the brakes again. Repeat all the way down.

You get shin splints when you don’t let your ‘brakes’ recover and your shin bones start to develop hot spots from the overuse. 

With this Ranger, who was at the top of his game physically, the issue with his running and rucking volume was more about technique than the number of miles he was putting in. And that’s where cadence comes into play. 

Running cadence is the number of steps you take in 1 minute. For most people, the ideal range is between 170 and 180. For someone used to running with a much lower cadence, running between 170 and 180  steps per minute will feel awkward – like taking short, choppy steps.

But with a cadence of 165 or lower, your foot is hitting the ground out in front of your body instead of underneath it, which forces your shin bones instead of calf muscles to absorb more of the shock when you hit the ground. 

For those with shin splints and a cadence of 165 or lower, I want to increase their cadence so the calves do more of the work instead of the shins. 

Here’s the method for increasing this Ranger’s running cadence: 

Step 1: Download a metronome app onto your phone

Step 2: Hop on a treadmill and run for 5 minutes at an easy pace you could hold for a long time

Step 3: We want to find your natural cadence, so while you’re running at that easy pace, change the metronome to match the pace of your steps. Key point here: don’t change your steps to match the metronome yet. 

For Ranger, his natural cadence was 160. Again, this means that he would take 160 steps per minute and the metronome would tick with every foot strike when set to 160. 

Step 4: Changing your cadence feels clunky at first, so only increase the metronome by 5-10 beats at a time. Stick with that higher goal cadence for 2-3 minutes until you start to get the hang of it. 

If the first change doesn’t bring your cadence between 170 and 180 per minute, all good; run at that initial increase for a week and then increase it again 5-10 steps/minute. 

Now that you know what it feels like to run at the higher cadence, it’s time to practice so you can develop muscle memory. Before starting a run, prime yourself by warming up with a 5-minute light jog at the goal cadence using the metronome.

If running on the treadmil, have your metronome up in front of you as you run. If running outside, run while listening to the sound of the metronome in your headphones. 

Both of those tactics are highly effective but overkill after a while. Once you get into the groove of what it feels like to run at the goal cadence you won’t need the metronome.

For Ranger, he actually felt a difference in his shin pain while running at 170 instead of 160 steps per minute. He looked at me in a “how did you know” kind of way, and I just smiled and set the metronome to 175. 

At 175, he had practically no pain with each foot strike—he was shocked. 

From my perspective, it was clear why his pain went away: the front of his foot, AKA his forefoot, was hitting the treadmill before his heel and directly under his body. He had his chest up with a slight forward lean. 

His calves were doing their jobs—absorbing the shock with each step and using it to propel him forward. 

Step 5: Go train at the higher cadence

I reached out to Ranger a week later to see how he was doing. Through his text, I still got the impression he wanted to say “how did you know,” because the results were a complete 360 from the last time we spoke. 

“Increasing the cadence has helped a ton. I ran a 20 miler on Sunday and felt great!”

My man. Good luck at BRC. RLTW. 

So, does this mean shin splints are always an issue of running technique? No. I’ll give you three other instances where the issue is likely to be something else: 

  1. Your shoes are toasted, and it’s time to change them out. 400 miles max per pair of shoes, maybe 300 if you have one of those high-performance shoes with the carbon plate. 
  1. Your weekly mileage has increased significantly in the last 8 weeks in big chunks, an example being going from 10 to 20 miles per week in back-to-back weeks. Here’s my rule of thumb for increasing running mileage week over week: You can increase your mileage 1 mile for every session of training you do in a week, but no more. So, if you run 3 times per week, you can increase your weekly mileage up to 3 miles next week. If you run 6 times per week, increase by no more than 6 miles next week. 
  1. You’re out of shape compared to how much running and rucking you’re trying to do. This is very common in basic training when you get new recruits that have never ran a single mile in their lives before joining the military and now they have to run everywhere, all day. This also happens in selection environments when candidates may run and ruck 100 miles in a week. That’s tough to prepare for no matter your training history. 

Well, there you have it. It is amazing what a slight change in running form can do for shin splints. If you are dealing with shin pain, I recommend you ask yourself if you fall into either of those 3 groups above. If not, check your cadence. Increasing it could provide you with the solution you’re looking for. 

Got a question for me? Hit me up at 

Jesse is a US Army Captain and Brigade Physical Therapist and Strength & Conditioning Coach.

All content found on Mountain Tactical Institute is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. 

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