Is pain slowing down your running regime? Those shin splint stretches might be making it worse – read on to learn what to avoid and what will actually ease the pain!
Seriously Achy Shins
Shin splints are a very common problem, especially with new runners or those who jump back in after being off for a while.
When you get them, there’s not much to do other than to decrease running intensity/volume until the pain goes away, then slowly ramp back up.
But for those of you with chronic shin splints, there’s some really bad advice out there I want to expose and in this article I’m going to highlight 3 commonly recommended shin splint stretches and exercises you shouldn’t do, and the factors you need to look at if you want to address the actual root cause.
One of my first jobs in the fitness industry was as a physical training instructor at the Ontario Police College, where I led classes and created training programs for the new recruits.
There were a few different fitness tests the recruits had to pass before they could become police officers.
One of these was the aerobic shuttle run aka the “beep test”, where you have to run back and forth over a 20 meter course and make it to the line before the next beep as the time between beeps gets progressively shorter.
Part of the training curriculum was to go for early morning runs around the campus, running anywhere from 1 to 2 miles.
Many recruits developed shin splints that lasted the entire time they were there (10 weeks) I’m guessing because they jumped into the group runs and classes and probably pushed themselves beyond their capabilities since their careers were on the line. So they never had the chance to recover.
Once they got it, their only hope was to manage the pain, which included ice massage.
I’d stock pile Dixie cups full of water into the freezer and hand them out to suffering recruits so they could massage their shins for a bit of relief. At times I felt like a crack dealer because recruits would be coming in moaning and groaning and be pretty upset if we were out of stock.
But this was just treating the symptoms and since those days I’ve learned a lot and we’re going to get into it.
So let’s start with some background…
Lower Leg Anatomy
Your “shin bone” is actually called the tibia. This is a large bone that runs from your knee to your ankle. To get an idea of just how major this bone is, consider that only your femur is longer .
Your tibia is paired with a much smaller bone, the fibula, that runs down the lateral side of your lower leg. Your fibula provides much of the surface area for muscle attachments, while your tibia is responsible for load bearing .
Running along the front of your lower leg, there are several major muscles. The extensor digitorum longus runs on the lateral portion of your lower leg and works to dorsiflex your foot (or pull your toes up) .
The tibialis anterior is the muscle that runs along the front of your shin. It also helps to dorsiflex your foot and lift it up as you swing your leg forward when walking or running.
The tibialis posterior is a deep muscle that runs along the posterior aspect of the tibia. It provides arch support to the midline of your foot as weight bears down. This muscle is covered by several other muscles of your calf, including the soleus and the gastrocnemius.
What is Causing Shin Splints?
That familiar ache of shin splints is actually inflammation in and around this front part of your lower leg. There are several different causes to shin splints and 2 main types that can cause you pain – anterior shin splints and posterior shin splints.
In anterior shin splints, your tibialis anterior muscle is the root. This typically results in pain that is centralized in the front center of the lower leg – right below your knee .
Try this: keep your heel on the ground and dorsiflex your toes, lifting them up. If your pain gets worse, you likely have anterior shin splints stemming from your tibialis anterior muscle.
The other major type is posterior shin splints, which are tied to your tibialis posterior muscle.
If this muscle is weak, it can’t provide enough support to your foot’s arch. If the arch is allowed to collapse (or overpronate), it creates excess pressure and pain on the tibia – pain that is felt as shin splints.
This type of shin splints might be felt slightly lower on your shin, and perhaps more toward the midline of your leg. You might even feel like the pain is coming from inside or just behind your shin bone.
3 Shin Splint Stretches to AVOID
The muscles of your lower leg are overused and causing pain, so you should just stretch them, right?
I know that based on the way a lot of us were taught to approach issues with pain and mobility, shin splint stretches might seem like common-sense. But in reality, these can do more harm than good. Here are the 3 major types of moves to avoid.
1. Tibialis Anterior Stretches
If you’re suffering from shin splints, you want to avoid any and all types of tibialis anterior stretches. Stretching this overworked muscle out is like tugging on an already fraying rope – you’re just asking for trouble and prolonged pain.
Avoid any move that focuses a stretch along the front of your lower leg. Even be careful with a one-legged quadriceps stretch like the below – you can easily turn this move into a deep tib anterior stretch.
2. Calf Stretches
Stretching out your calf won’t help either. It’s not likely to hurt anything, but as we’ve seen, the major, superficial calf muscles like your soleus and gastrocnemius aren’t involved in shin splints. So stretching these muscles in an effort to reduce shin splint pain is a waste of your precious time.
Skip over devoting time to calf stretches, like dropping your heels down off a stair or really trying to get your heels toward the ground in a downward dog – it’s just not going to ease your shin pain.
3. Tibialis Anterior Strengthening Exercises
You also don’t want to be working the tibialis anterior. This muscle is overworked as it is – that’s the likely cause of your shin splints pain. Adding more load to this muscle is just going to overwork already damaged tissue.
Despite this, you will see tibialis anterior exercises recommended all over the place as a way to ease shin splint pain .
Keep an eye out for moves that involve repeatedly dorsiflexing the foot – These moves are meant to strengthen the tib anterior, and something you want to steer clear of.
Moves like wall shin raises, heel step downs or banded toe raises are more likely to hurt than help, despite what you may read online.
Effective Shin Splint Strategies
If you’ve been doing some googling related to shin splints and have found only tibialis anterior moves and calf stretches, you might be feeling a bit hopeless. But don’t worry, there ARE things you can do to ease your shin splint pain effectively.
1. Shoe Shop
For one, take a second to consider your footwear. Are your running shoes years old and totally worn out? It’s time to invest in a new pair.
It’s not about the fun of having shiny new kicks, it’s about having shoes that fit your foot properly. No foot is exactly the same and just because a running shoe works great for your buddy, it doesn’t mean it’s the best option for you.
If you haven’t had much luck finding a shoe with a great fit, visit a reputable store and try on a bunch of different shoes to find what feels best to you.
And don’t be shy about giving them a real test drive.
2. (Re)Start Running Conservatively
Whether you are new to running or you’ve just taken a few months off from pounding the pavement, it’s extremely important that you start slow.
Take it easy with both distances and time durations as you get into the swing of things. Build up your endurance SLOWLY and start to ramp things up over time.
Believe me, I understand how hard this can be. You’ve got the energy, you’re trying to meet a goal, and you just want to push it and keep going.
But, the truth is, this approach won’t help ANYTHING eventually. In fact, it will end up slowing you way down. Be smart about your training, and take it slow. Doing so will help you avoid overworked muscles and resultant shin splint pain – pain that can end up keeping you off the track for weeks.
3. Understand the Kinetic Chain
Just because you’re concerned about shin splints doesn’t mean you should focus all of your attention on the lower leg. In fact, we’ve seen that certain lower-leg centric moves like tibialis anterior exercises and calf stretches can be counter-productive.
What you DO need to do is consider the kinetic chain of your body. Running is a full body movement, and increasing stability elsewhere in the chain can help reduce strained muscles in the lower leg.
Training for core and hip stability can work wonders when it comes to improving running form and building proper muscular balance as you add on the mileage.
Research has shown that weakness in the hip abductors, which work to move the leg away from the body, has been tied to an increased chance of shin splints .
Research has also shown that instability – not just weakness – in the hips can increase the likelihood of shin splints .
To help avoid these pitfalls and improve hip stability and strength, check out my article on building strong, balanced hips with gluteus medius moves.
To train core stability (which will help your alignment and form in any activity you do, not just running), try some of my favorite core stabilization drills.
Addressing Anterior Shin Splints
If you’re dealing with anterior shin splints there are a couple of specific strategies you can use to help ease the pain.
First, consider your running mechanics. If you strike the ground excessively with your heel, you’re causing extra work for your tibialis anterior with every single stride (and there are a TON of strides in each one of your mile runs). Focus on reducing your heel strike and landing with a smoother footfall.
Also, consider the alignment of your foot. Do you tend to overpronate (roll the ankle and foot excessively inward) or oversupinate (roll the foot outward)?
Image by www.physiotherapiststralee.ie
These improper alignment habits can also place excessive stress on the tibialis anterior (and actually, the tibialis posterior, too) – causing shin splint pain.
Focus on proper foot alignment and consciously consider how you’re holding your weight on the ground.
Dealing with Posterior Shin Splints
If you have posterior shin splints and the tale-tell collapsed arch, you might have been told before that orthotics are the answer. I wish it were that easy…
Addressing the flat feet (aka pes planus) and a collapsed arch that can come from an overworked tib posterior will require more than some propping up.
Orthotics simply provide an artificial arch – they do nothing to address the dysfunction of the tibialis posterior, and as such, will do nothing to reduce shin splint pain or correct functional alignment and form.
Instead, you’ve got to tackle the tibialis posterior directly by working to strengthen it and by considering other misalignments that might be related. For example, the extremely common problem of a lack of internal hip rotation is often at play.
When your hips are chronically externally rotated, your feet also assume this outward-turning position.
When this happens, your tibialis posterior atrophies – it doesn’t need to work since it’s not used when your feet are turned out, and your feet are turned out all the time when your internal hip rotators aren’t working. The end result? Flat feet, bad running form, and painful shins.
To address this, try this drill for working proper hip rotation. Bringing back some internal rotation to your hips will also require you to fire up and re-engage that tibialis posterior.
Give these strategies and shin splint exercises a try while skipping over those 3 shin splint stretches that won’t get you anywhere. Soon, you’ll be back out there flying and racking up the steps.