If you're a runner or do any other workout where you're pounding a hard surface, chances are you've dealt with shin splints. Felt as pain, soreness or tightness up the front of your shins, this injury ranges in severity from annoying to debilitating. But the good news is that you can add stretches and exercises to your routine to help prevent those painful flare-ups.
Some of these preventive moves are so simple that incorporating them into your daily routine will only take a few extra minutes and can be done upon waking or while sitting at your desk. Below, an expert outlines what exactly shin splints are and shows you the exercises that can treat or even prevent the pain.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are a common workout injury that can sideline even the most experienced athlete. The key to preventing — or recovering from — them is to understand what they are. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) defines them as "pain along the inner edge of the shinbone."
So what causes shin splints? According to the AAOS, they're usually a result of repetitive activity (like running) that overworks the muscles and bones of your lower leg. You're especially susceptible to them if you've recently changed the duration, intensity, frequency or type of your workout. Having flat feet or rigid arches or running with worn-out shoes also increases your risk injury.
How to Prevent Shin Splints
Though they're painful, shin splints are also treatable and preventable. Master trainer Erin Truslow, a cycling and triathlon coach who founded Big Pistachio Coaching and Training in Austin, Texas, has six tips to help runners and athletes prevent shin splints.
- Increase your mileage gradually. This also includes giving yourself enough rest between long runs.
- Mix up the surface you run on. Switch between concrete, asphalt, trail, track, treadmill and grass. This also applies to non-running workouts.
- Cross-train. Use strength training sessions to build strength in your legs without overdoing calf exercises.
- Watch your foot strike. "Heel striking can be detrimental to your body as it is jarring and very impacting on the bones and joints," Truslow says. "A mid-foot strike is preferred for a more efficient run."
- Wear properly fitted shoes. This is especially important if you're a new runner.
- Stretch and foam roll. Show your muscles some love before and after a run. As Truslow says, "a little self-care goes a long way."
The Best Exercises for Shin Splints
In addition to the above advice for injury prevention, Truslow also shares her go-to shin splint stretches and exercises you can do both to prevent and to treat pain in your lower legs.
1. Calf Stretch
Sometimes you may feel the first sign of shin splints in the calves. "Running can cause tight calves, which in turn pull on the anterior tibias, or the shins," says Truslow. This calf stretch can help loosen up those muscles.
- Stand close to a wall, curb or step.
- With the heel down, raise the toes up the wall or curb to a 45-degree angle or greater.
- Keep your leg straight, with a soft bend in the knee.
- Add or remove pressure by leaning forward or back slightly. If you're on a curb, hang your heel off the edge, letting your body weight assist with the stretch.
- Hold for 30 seconds on each foot.
2. The ABCs
Using your ABCs is a quick way to help stretch out your foot and ankle. This can be done preventively or as shin splints develop. Truslow suggests doing it in the morning. "This gets the circulation going, keeps the ankle flexible and stretches out the peroneus — the muscle on the side of your calf that attaches down by the ankle."
- Sit or stand and write the alphabet out with your foot.
- Use only your foot and ankle, not your entire lower leg.
- Once you get through the entire alphabet, repeat with the opposite foot.
3. Resistance-Band Wipers
To help keep shin splints at bay, Truslow recommends adding resistance-band wipers to your routine. "These primarily work the peroneal muscles and help build strength in the lower leg," she says.
- Place a resistance band around both feet.
- Then, using one foot as an anchor, rotate the other from side to side like a windshield wiper.
- Truslow suggests doing this 20 times on one foot before switching to the other.
4. Foam Rolling
Calf tightness leads to changes in your running gait that can not only cause shin splints, but also lead to plantar fasciitis. This is why Truslow stresses the importance of a quality foam-rolling session after long runs.
"You should do a total-leg rolling session one to three times per week, as long as it is not creating more soreness," she says. By rolling out your legs, you will help release the muscles and fascia around the calf.
- Kneel on the roller.
- Gently roll two inches down the front of the shin (anterior tibialis).
- Then roll one inch up.
- Do this all the way from the lower knee to the ankle.
Read more: The DOs and DON'Ts of Foam Rolling
5. Lacrosse Ball Trigger Point Massage
Much like foam rolling, using a yoga block and a lacrosse ball also helps release tight muscles and fascia to help prevent shin splints. "The harder the ball, the deeper you can get into the belly of the muscle," says Truslow. "Be sure to take some deep breaths during this intense exercise."
- Place a trigger point therapy ball, lacrosse ball or tennis ball on a yoga block, and prop your calf muscle up on the ball.
- Roll out the calf muscle from the ankle up to your knee. Use the same "two inches up, one inch down" method as with the foam roller.
- Be sure to breathe deeply when you reach any sore spots.
6. Active Toe Spreading
The purpose of active toe spreading, Truslow says, is to help strengthen the small muscles in the feet and keep them healthy. By working these muscles, you're increasing your balance and the strength in your feet, which directly affect your ankles, calves and shins.
- Stand barefoot on the floor.
- Spread your toes out as wide as possible before relaxing them.
- Repeat 10 times.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.