Shin splints are the bane of many athletes, whether they're runners or just forced into running for conditioning (ahem, football players). But fear no more, there are many steps you can take to relieve the pain—or prevent it entirely.
According to Dr. Matt Stevens, physical therapist and owner of Pure Physio (Strongsville, Ohio), shin splints are typically a compression injury to the shin bone. Shin splints can stem from poor footwear, inefficient running style, insufficient warm-up, muscle imbalances, overuse and fatigue, to name a few.
Identifying your cause can lead you to relief faster. Some helpful tips:
Test for Imbalances
If you run or sprint for the first time in a while and experience shin splints, that's typically OK. The impact forces are a shock to the system similar to suddenly doing an exercise with far heavier weights.
However, if you have nagging shin splints—especially if it's only on one leg—then you have a bigger problem. Stevens explains that the lower leg needs the capacity to withstand and absorb impact forces. Without it, your shin bone will withstand too much compressive stress and you will experience shin splints.
Check your ankle/calf strength with the Single-Leg Supported Calf Raise.
- Stand with a wall about three feet in front of you and place your hands on the wall with your arms straight in front of your shoulders.
- Raise your left leg so you're balancing on your right leg. Your body should be at a slight forward lean.
- Perform a calf raise by lifting your heel off the ground as high as you can. Briefly hold at the top of the rep before lowering your heel to the ground. Perform as many reps as possible and repeat with your left leg.
- You pass this test if you can perform 30 or more reps and if you can do the same number of reps with both legs. If not, you need to strengthen your calf muscles (more on that below)
Check Your Stride
Every person has a unique running stride, so no stride is wrong, per se. But your stride might suffer from treatable deficiencies, like insufficient hip flexion—or tight hips, to put it plainly. This is usually caused by tight or overactive hip flexors, which can often be corrected with consistent stretching.
Faulty foot and ankle mechanics also play a role in shin splints. A poor foot strike or limited ankle mobility can shift impact stress to your shins and cause an injury, especially with repeated use. Fixing your technique to the extent possible takes a long time, and you should not attempt to do it during a sports season.
Roll It Out
You can perform self-massage with a foam roller, lacrosse or tennis ball, or just your hands. Work for 10 to 30 seconds on an area causing discomfort, trying to get tense muscles to release. Move on when the area is no longer sensitive to the touch.
Here's a video showing Self-Myofascial Release of Calf Muscles and Peroneals. In this exercise, you roll on a lacrosse ball, helping to alleviate the stress you are experiencing in your calf and side of the calf. Ideally you can perform this before your running or training session. You will be helping to reduce the amount of poor tissue formed by excessive training.
Give It a Stretch
Once your muscles are warmed up from foam rolling, move on to stretching. These exercises can be performed separately from one another, or in a progressive series:
- Passive Stretch = Kneeling Plantarflexion - 4x10-sec. hold each side
- Active Stretch = Band Plantarflexion - 20x2-sec. hold each side
- Active Stretch = Supine Straight Leg Raise + Band Plantarflexion - 20x2-sec. hold each side
Build Strength and Endurance
Your calves are the largest muscles in your lower leg and play a critical role in ankle function and absorbing impact forces, so calf strength and endurance are essential.
Your calves are actually two separate muscles: The gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastroc is the upper portion of the calf muscle and covers the soleus, which sits just beneath it.
Strengthening these muscles to prevent or alleviate shin splints is quite simple. Perform the Single-Leg Supported Calf Raise—the same exercise you used to test your calf strength. To target the gastroc, do it with a straight leg as described above. For the soleus, do it with a slightly bent knee. Perform 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps for each leg and both variations.
Straight-Leg -> Gastrocnemius
Bent-Knee -> Soleus
Try these easy fixes so you can run and train without the pain of shin splints.
- 4 Exercises to Prevent Shin Splints
- Prevent Shin Splints With a Proper Warm-Up
- More Training Isn't Always Better: Common Overuse Injuries and Remedies