How to Diagnose the Most Common Causes of Running Pain

running pain

If you’re running without any pain at all, you’re one of the lucky ones. Some studies have estimated that up to 90% of runners become injured in some type of way that can cause them to lose running time and miss out on runs overall.

While there is a certain pain you must endure when running (muscle cramps, fatigue, etc), certain pains shouldn’t be ignored. Running pain that makes you feel like you can’t go on, pain that’s sharp and severe’ and even pain you think you can run through should be properly diagnosed and dealt with before you make it worse.

There are a few different types of running pains you might be experiencing that are common. Don’t worry though: most running pain is preventable and treatable.

We’re going to go over some of the most common causes of running pain that you could be experiencing, how to diagnose these pains, and what you can do to prevent it.

Runner’s Knee

Runner’s knee is so common amongst runners that this pain is named after the sport itself. Also known as “patellofemoral syndrome”, this is one of the most common knee injuries for all kinds of athletes.

Causes and Symptoms

There are two main causes of this pain: overuse of the area and misalignment of the kneecap.

If you’re overusing your knees and not resting enough, the cartilage in that area can wear away. This damage to the cartilage in the knee leads to the pain you feel when running.

This pain can also be the result of a misalignment issue. If your kneecap isn’t aligned properly with the tendons in your quadriceps and your lower leg, the kneecap can be pushed abnormally when you’re running. This will irritate the surrounding cartilage, tendons, and tissues, which leads to the pain you feel when running.

The pain is localized in the knee and kneecap area and can be exacerbated when climbing/descending stairs, running hills, squatting, or bending your knee.


If you’re feeling pain in your kneecaps when you’re running, it’s a safe bet that runner’s knee is the cause of your pain. Another symptom to look for when diagnosing this issue is whether your pain is made worse when climbing/descending stairs, walking/running up and down hills, squatting, or bending.

These are all signs of runner’s knee being your pain issue.


If your runner’s knee is caused by overuse, you’re going to need to spend time resting. This is tough, especially if you’re in training. But runner’s knee can easily be treated by cutting back on your runs and taking it easy until the pain subsides.

Rest along with the classic RICE method and anti-inflammatory drugs should treat your issue.

If rest doesn’t help, misalignment may be the problem. You can see your doctor, or learn more about self-diagnosis. A doctor might recommend physical therapy or knee braces.

Shin Splints

Another common cause of pain while running is shin splits. Almost 60% of all leg injuries are determined to be shin splints.

Causes and Symptoms

Shin splint pain occurs around the front/inner part of the shin area of the lower leg. Shin splints can be quite painful and can prevent you from finishing workouts. The pain is usually widespread along the entire area instead of being a sharp pain in a singular spot.


Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate shin splints from stress fractures of the bones, but there are ways to specifically diagnose this issue.

Fractures are more localized in one spot while shin splint pain is widespread. Shin splint pain is described as dull or throbbing.

Shin splints also occur more often when you switch up your running: from short to long distance, weekly mileage, increasing your speed, new shoes, etc.

If you have flat feet, that’s another sign that this pain is caused by shin splints.

If you’re really not sure whether it’s a fracture or shin splints, it can be diagnosed by x-ray. An x-ray would show a fracture, while if the x-ray looks normal, the problem is almost definitely shin splints.


Rest is the most common treatment. You should avoid running for at least 2 weeks and try lower impact exercises.

If you are a runner or training for a race, try training on softer running surfaces to minimize impact. Run on dirt or grass instead of the road, for example.

Compression socks, KT tape, and wraps may also help with shin splint pain.

Stress Fractures

The third most common cause of running pain is a stress fracture of the bones in your leg.

Causes and Symptoms

Stress fractures are caused by overuse and/or misuse of your bones. They’re cracks in the bone of your legs. For runners, they’re most common in the shins and feet.


The most definite way to diagnose a stress fracture is with an x-ray. An x-ray will show the cracks in the bones that are causing your pain.

You can also self-diagnose stress fractures. These usually occur if you go too hard too fast. If you’ve just started an intense training plan without giving your body a chance to warm up or adjust, the pain you’re feeling is very likely because of a stress fracture.

Stress fractures also only are particularly painful during the activity. Pain will get worse as you run and get better when you’re resting.


Treatment can involve a few different things. Perfecting your running form can help prevent stress fractures from forming in the first place.

You’ll also need to rest and avoid high impact activity while the fracture heals or it could get worse.

Diagnosing and Treating Running Pain: Bottom Line

These are just three of the most common types of running pain that you could be experiencing.

Diagnosing the cause of your pain is important so you can properly adjust your training. This will help you heal faster and get back to pain-free running as fast as possible.

Check out our other training tips to make sure you’re training in the safest and most effective way possible.