Follow this cycling Physical Therapist’s five-step approach to preventing, treating, and eliminating Shin Pain While Cycling.
Shin and lower leg pain is common in athletes, although it doesn’t often occur in cyclists. Cycling is considered a low-impact, or low-weight-bearing, sport. In most cases, the stress on the lower leg is less than in other impact activities, like running or playing basketball.
However, that doesn’t make cyclists immune from experiencing debilitating shin discomfort. Lower leg pain can strike cyclists, whether it’s the direct result of riding or from another cause. Once it occurs, it usually gets worse before it gets better.
The good news is that shin pain while cycling can be treated and prevented.
Shin Pain While Cycling
Shin pain while cycling develops from overuse of the muscles, tendons, or bones in the lower leg. The most common cause of shin pain while cycling is shin splints.
Shin splints result from the repetitive stress on the muscles and connective tissue of the front of the lower leg. It is also sometimes called medial tibial stress syndrome or anterior tibialis tendonitis. The pain of shin splints happens when the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around the shin bone (tibia) become irritated and inflamed.
Other causes of shin pain an athlete experiences are stress fractures and compartment syndrome. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the tibia resulting from the repetitive impact of sports like running, gymnastics, basketball, or tennis.
Shin pain while cycling that persists over time can be due to chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Compartment syndrome is an exercise-induced condition that causes pain and swelling in the affected area.
A cyclist will experience tightness, numbness, tingling, weakness, or in severe cases, foot drop—the inability to pick your toes up off the ground. Compartment syndrome is an emergency requiring immediate treatment. Contact your healthcare professional right away if you suspect your shin pain while cycling is compartment syndrome.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Shin Pain While Cycling
Shin pain while cycling due to shin splints causes dull and achy pain over a broad area of your lower leg. The pain usually decreases as you warm up and then returns following activity.
The symptoms differ from the pain of stress fractures, which are localized to one area of your shin and progressively worsen with activity.
Your healthcare team will generally diagnose shin splints and other orthopedic conditions of the lower leg from a history and physical examination. The medical professional will pay special attention to the location of pain and what triggers it.
Direct pressure over the shin bone will recreate the pain symptoms. Usually, more than a 5 cm section of the tibia is involved with shin splints.
If you have swelling, redness, or diminished pulses in the area, the healthcare professional will look to a different underlying cause. MRI and x-ray tests will confirm the differential diagnosis of stress fractures and other conditions.
Causes of Shin Pain While Cycling
Shin pain while cycling is often the result of poor pedaling technique and improper positioning. Pedaling with an excessively high cadence places undue repetitive stress on the lower leg structures. If you lower your heel too much on the downstroke or pull up from your foot on the upstroke, the shin muscles get overloaded.
Improper saddle position and a crank arm that’s too long will also cause shin pain while cycling. If your saddle is too high or back too far, it will cause you to point your toe to reach the bottom of the pedal stroke. Over time the repetitive stress overloads the muscle on the front of the shin, the anterior tibialis, causing irritation, inflammation, and pain.
A proper bike fit performed by a certified professional is always a good idea.
The position of your foot within your cycling shoes can also be a problem. Cycling-specific footbeds or shoe inserts will help.
In addition, if your lower leg muscles are tight or weak, they won’t be able to handle the stress of pedaling. Avoid sudden increases in volume and intensity, take appropriate rest and recovery, and begin a lower body stretching and strengthening program.
Shin Pain While Cycling Treatment and Prevention Plan
Step One—Ice Massage
Take a paper dixie cup, fill it with water, insert a tongue depressor or plastic spoon and place it in the freezer. When it freezes, you will have your very own DIY ice massager.
Remove the paper cup, and run it slowly over the affected region of your shin using the spoon as a handle. Keep it up until the ice melts!
The theory behind cryotherapy is that applying cold or ice packs to an injured or inflamed area causes the blood vessels to constrict. It reduces pain and swelling because there is less blood flow and inflammatory factors in the area. Apply ice to your shins after riding when the pain occurs.
Step Two—Perform a Lower Leg Stretching and Foam Rolling Routine
Step Three—Perform a Lower Leg Strengthening Program
Step Four—Check Bike Fit and Positioning
An expert bike fit by a skilled and certified professional is always a solid idea. Although we mentioned a few potential bike fit and positioning causes earlier, they may not be the cause of your shin pain while cycling. Lower leg pain can be complicated, and you must consider many factors. A good bike fitter will sort it out!
Step Five—Modify Your Activity
When you notice the discomfort of shin pain while cycling, it’s best to take action immediately to prevent it from getting out of control. Only ramp up your riding time or intensity with a good build-up of base fitness.
Ensure your muscles have enough recovery time between long rides or intense training sessions. You may have to take a break if you can’t kick the pain. Don’t worry. If you follow the previous suggestions, it will be brief.
Conclusion—Shin Pain While Cycling
Shin pain while cycling isn’t a common riding complaint, but it happens. When it does, it can become a big problem in a short time. Prevent lower leg pain from stressing you out! Follow this five-step shin pain while cycling treatment and prevention program.
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!