What are shin splints, what causes them, and which exercises can help get rid of them? Get-Fit Guy has the solution to your lower leg pain.
Just about anybody who has ever been in the military, run for fitness or competition, or danced for fun or as a profession, has probably experienced the bane of foot strikers everywhere: shin splints.
From mild discomfort on the front of the lower leg to severe pain with each step, every variety of shin splints is annoying, inconvenient, and in some cases, even debilitating.
What are shin splints?
“Shin splints” is a catch-all term to refer to pain on the front lower leg. The fancy medical term for the most common cause of shin splints is “medial tibial stress syndrome” which simply means there is an inflammation or sometimes separation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia (shin bone). Pain typically occurs along the inner border of the tibia, where muscles attach to the bone.
This syndrome can occur when the leg is repetitively exposed to impact-based stress, which can fatigue the muscles on the back of the leg, and create excessive bending of the tibia bone of the lower leg. When the tibia bends and moves, the tendons and soft tissue along the front of the leg that connects to the tibia can become overused and inflamed, resulting in you grimacing with each step.
This syndrome can also occur when your calf muscle is so tight that you must exert extra force to flex your foot as you walk or run. You can think of it like your foot’s natural and relaxed position has become slightly pointed, all the time, due to the tightness in your calf. So in order to not trip every time you take a step, you have to engage your shin muscles to flex your foot. This poops out those muscles and this constant tension in the muscle causes it to pull away from the bone. Yikes!
A couple of other less common conditions that can cause shin splints are stress fractures (small breaks in the bone caused by muscles tugging on them), and compartment syndrome (pressure that builds up in the muscle compartments).
What causes shin splints?
The most common cause is wearing shoes with positive heels (and I don't just mean stilletos). Having our heels constantly elevated off the ground, and above our toes, shortens our calves and hamstrings, which creates tension down the back of the leg which puts us in that semi-permanent toe pointed scenario I described earlier. For more information about that, check out my article called How to build strong and pain-free feet.
Some other causes of shin splints include:
- a sharp increase in activity (Say it with me: too much, too soon!)
- a change to a hard or uneven exercise surface.
- improper or worn-out footwear.
- weak core muscles.
So, now that we can figure out what may have caused your shin splints, we can create a list of activities to help get rid of your shin splints.
How to get rid of shin splints
If you have shin splints, a number of exercises or activities can help, but here are a few that have more general benefits and that you can do at home:
- Decrease activity or make sure that you always increase your activity gradually rather than all at once. For example, when running, a good rule of thumb is to never add more than about 10% volume each week.
- Run or exercise on softer surfaces. For example, if you run on concrete, which is one of the hardest surfaces you could possibly run on, switch to a paved surface, or better yet, the gravel or dirt on the side of the road, off-road running trails, or the grass in a field or pitch.
- Choose your footwear wisely. Rather than buying your shoes online, go to a store that specializes in selling running shoes and have them watch you stand, walk, and run, and then make shoe recommendations based on your unique body mechanics and fitness goals. And most importantly, try on many pairs of shoes and let your feet be your guide. It doesn’t matter if an expert says the shoes are right for you -- if they don’t feel good immediately, don’t buy them.
- Change worn-out shoes. Running shoes should be replaced before all that is holding them together is hope and duct tape (don’t laugh, an ultra runner friend of mine has done that). If you frequently run on hard surfaces, you’ll need to change your running shoes more frequently.
- Train your core. A strong core will allow you to place less stress on your lower limbs with each step. For more info and tips on how to strengthen your code, check out my articles and podcasts called Don’t ignore your core, Rock solid stability, and How to plank like a pro.
- Stretch your calves. Each day, preferably before you run, do a wall calf stretch, in which you place both hands on the wall and lean into it with one leg outstretched behind you, and a down dog, in which you get into a push-up position, then lift your butt towards the ceiling until you feel a stretch in the back of your legs. You can also do foam rolling exercises for your calf. Stretching the calves is good for both preventing and recovering from shin splints.
- Stretch your hamstrings. Forward fold is a great hamstring stretch and so is downward facing dog. Just make sure you are pivoting from the hips and pelvis and not just from your lower back. And remember to breathe while you stretch -- especially when targeting a big muscle group like the hamstrings. Don’t force your way into the stretch, relax your way into it for at least 60-90 seconds at a time.
Once you are no longer in pain, you can start strengthening the front of your legs deliberately, not just as a consequence of having tight claves. One of the easiest ways to strengthen the front leg muscles is with toe lifts. To do these, stand comfortably and lift the front of your foot off of the floor while keeping your heels on the floor. Try to hold this position for 10 seconds and then slowly lower the front of your foot back to the floor.
Once you get to the point where toe lifts are easy, you can begin heel walks. To do these, you guessed it, you walk on your heels with your toes pointed straight ahead.
While you are still healing your shin splints, do not overdo either the toe lifts or the heel walks. If your shin pain increases or comes back, stop doing these exercises and return your focus to healing the muscle while loosening up your calves and hams.
A shin splints workout
With all this in mind, here is a shin splints workout:
- Warm-up: 5-10 minutes of Sun Salutations. This gives you a nice full body, no impact, warm-up while also preparing your calves and hamstrings for the work ahead.
- Elevated toe calf stretch, on each leg, for 60 seconds, and then do 60 seconds of either the yoga pose called downward facing dog or forward fold.
- 30 steps of heel walks, or 30 reps of toe lifts.
- Repeat the stretches and the heel walks or toe lifts three times through.
- Finish with 10-20 foam rolls on each of your calves and down the outside of your shins.
Once your shin splints are no longer causing you pain, you can add in a routine like this to help strengthen the entire area and prevent shin splints from ever happening again.