Do you experience sudden sharp or throbbing frontal lower leg pain after running? Are you wondering why your shin area is particularly sensitive to touch? There’s a good chance it is due to medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). The review paper “Overuse injuries: tendinopathies, stress fractures, compartment syndrome, and shin splints” confirmed that shin splints are one of the most common overuse injuries and that approximately 50% of all sports injuries stem from repetitive microtrauma. (1) As a strength and conditioning coach with five years in the trenches, I encounter people dealing with shin splints weekly. I’ve seen countless cases resolved and prevented simply through targeted exercises and stretches. In this article, I’ll discuss ways to prevent the occurrence of this tedious syndrome, and should it arise, the same exercises and stretches prove beneficial.
Understanding Shin Splints
Although ‘shin splints’ is a broad medical term encompassing various lower leg conditions, in 90% of instances, it specifically refers to medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). Lower leg anatomy is complex, but in this case, you have to know about three muscles — tibialis anterior, tibialis posterior, and soleus. Microdamage of those muscles, tendons that attach them to bones, and surrounding tissue over time leads to inflammation. Inflammation and subsequent pain in the area of the tibia (shin bone) are called shin splints. Pain (especially after running or brisk walking) along the inner edge of the shinbone is the main symptom, yet tenderness, and mild swelling are typical indicators too. Although it can be very painful, it certainly does not belong to the group of most severe sports injuries like ACL or Achilles tear. Unlike those injuries, shin splints can be treated with conservative treatments, and the recovery period is incomparably shorter.
8 Exercises for Shin Splints
The following exercises stand out as top choices for alleviating shin splints, as they offer a combination of minimal strain on the shins and maximum therapeutic benefits:
Calf raises are a staple exercise in most lower-body workouts. This exercise is equally useful for addressing shin splints and Achilles problems or as part of a regular leg day. Stronger calves will absorb a significant part of the load when you run, thus relieving the shinbone. There are several variations of this exercise. You can do it standing, sitting, with or without weights, and as you progress, add single-leg calf raises to your workout.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Lift your heels off the ground, rising on the toes and upper part of the feet. Hold the raised position for a few seconds. Slowly lower your heels back down to the ground.
Pro tip: I always remind my clients to avoid rapid or jerky movements and maintain full control throughout the entire exercise; otherwise, it is useless.
Ankle Dorsiflexion with Resistance Band
Ankle dorsiflexion exercise targets an often overlooked muscle — tibialis anterior. That muscle is the primary dorsiflexor (pulls the ankle and foot back toward your shin), and this exercise is the perfect way to strengthen it.
How to: Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Wrap the resistance band around a sturdy anchor. Tie the other end around the top of your foot. Flex your ankle, pulling your toes towards your shin against the resistance. Slowly return to the starting position.
Pro tip: Once you strengthen the muscles around the shinbone, you can do this exercise with a kettlebell, either standing or sitting. Thread your foot through a kettlebell’s handle and do the same movement.
The toe walk is a simple yet effective way to engage the lower leg muscles. This gentle yet effective low-impact exercise engages the muscles along the shin, offering a meaningful challenge without subjecting them to undue stress. It is suitable even for the first phase of shin split recovery.
How to: Stand on your toes and the balls of your feet. Walk for a set distance or time. Maintain an upright posture throughout the exercise.
Pro tip: Do this exercise barefoot for better foot muscle engagement. Weak feet are often a hidden cause of lower body problems.
The heel walk exercise complements the toe walk by targeting different muscles in the lower legs. Walking on your heels will activate muscles on both sides of the lower leg. Another advantage of this exercise is improved ankle mobility. Many people have poor ankle mobility due to low-quality shoes and other factors like poor walking patterns.
How to: Lift your toes off the ground and stand on your heels. Walk forward in this heel-walking position. To avert lower back pain, ensure your footsteps are gentle.
Pro tip: Focus on lifting your toes as high as possible while walking on your heels.
Soleus Wall Squat
Soleus wall squat is also known as “walk squat calf raises” and “soleus wall holds.” Whatever the name, it must be part of every runner’s workout routine. Soleus wall squat will help you improve quad and calf muscle (primarily soleus and gastrocnemius muscles) strength and endurance. The study “Muscle contributions to propulsion and support during running” proved the importance of those three muscles for running. (2)
How to: Stand with your back against a wall. Take a few steps forward, keeping your feet hip-width apart and your back against the wall. Lower your body into a squat, sliding down the wall. Get on your toes. Hold the squat position on your toes for a set amount of time or repetitions.
Pro tip: This is a challenging exercise, so start with shorter durations and gradually increase the time as your strength improves.
You may wonder why an adductor strengthening exercise is on this list. The chances of shin splints recurring are high if you only strengthen your calves and ignore your upper legs. This exercise isolates the adductor muscles, and exercisers of various fitness levels can perform it. That’s why it’s a perfect option for improving hip stability, addressing muscle imbalances, or preventing and rehabilitating injuries, such as shin splints.