04 Jun The Best Exercises For Shin Splints
Got a pain in the front of your shins that just does not want to go away? Have you been running a lot or playing a lot of sports that involve jumping activity? If so, you may be dealing with what is known as ‘shin splints’. This lower leg injury often due to overuse is a difficult one to rehabilitate for many reasons, one of which being its obscurity. Shin splints, which is better known as ‘medial tibial stress syndrome’, is an injury more common in endurance athletes such as runners, as well as athletes involved in jumping sports such as basketball or volleyball, who are placing large amounts of stress with high volume through their lower extremities. In this article, we are going to show you the best shin splints exercises that will get you out of pain and back to your activities!
What Exactly Are Shin Splints?
Usually, shin splints will start as an insidious onset of pain in the lower leg that increases with activity. The pain can be present either at the inside of the shin bone (medial aspect of the tibia) or even on the front of the shin. The pain is usually described as a deep, dull boring pain, but if becoming more severe, it can be described as sharp.
Presented in an article by Winters et al, Medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS) is currently defined as pain that is present along the posteromedial border of the tibia that occurs during exercise or pain with palpation over a 5 centimeter or greater area of the posteromedial border of the tibia. This is more commonly seen in individuals who place a large amount of stress through their lower legs, with the highest incidences being present in long-distance runners, dancers, and military personnel.
Are Nagging Shin Splints Holding You Back From Running?
A lot of people think that you can just grab a pair of shoes and start running, which can be true. However, failure to prepare may set you up for failure. “You don’t run to get fit, you have to be fit to run.” Without proper training, education, and an understanding of healthy running hygiene habits, issues may arise that can keep you from running. The Running [P]Rehab Program will teach you the best cross-training routine for runners and education to help you maintain optimal running health. Learn more HERE!
How Do I Get Rid Of Shin Splints?
The first step in treating shin splints is easy, but not so easy. In most instances, simply reducing the amount of volume, duration, and/or frequency an individual is engaging in is half the battle! Yes, this is challenging for many of us as innately when trying to train for a race or simply stay active. However, we know there is still a lot that can be done from an exercise perspective even when allowing a particular area of the body to heal (Read this article on staying strong after surgery!) Relative rest is important to allow the area to calm down before moving towards more progressive exercises.
How Do I Know If I Have Shin Splints?
Here are some potential causes of shin splints:
- Training on an incline or doing a lot of hill training increases use of the ankle dorsiflexors (muscles that bring your foot towards your nose)
- Increased ankle joint plantar flexion: The proposed theory behind this is this foot position (toes pointed downward) may predispose an individual to more of a forefoot landing with running. which can place more stress through the tibia
- Changes in hip joint range of motion may alter running kinematics leading to excessive loading at the tibia. Want to increase your hip mobility? Check this article out!
- Increased foot pronation (flat foot position) may also place more stress on the medial aspect of the tibia. Here are some exercises to combat this!
- Other studies have also supported increased BMI, excessive foot varus, female sex, and training errors.
We have often discussed that overuse injuries, especially in runners is often due to training errors. Training errors related to running has been related to an abrupt increase in volume, duration, and/or frequency of the activity, switching terrain to a harder surface, and excessive hill training. Moreover, the combination of running on hard surfaces and downhill places more eccentric load and ground reaction forces through the body.
Don’t Let Shin Shin Splints Turn Into A Bigger Problem…Stress Fractures!
Stress fractures occur when there is repetitive load to areas of the body without proper recovery, which leads to an imbalance between bone formation and absorption. Moreover, the osteoclasts (breaking down bone cells) start to overpower the work of the osteoblasts (building up bone cells). Most of these will occur in the cortical region of the bone, the diaphysis of long bone, or the shell of square bone where the remodeling process is slower.
How Are Stress Fractures Different From Shin Splints?
Similar to shin splints, usually people will have an insidious onset of pain that is worse with activity and better with rest. In this case, the front of the shin (anterior tibia) will usually be tender upon palpation. In contrast to shin splints, stress fractures usually are going to be more intense in regards to pain, and more focal in regards to where the pain is located, whereas shin splints have more of a diffuse, aching type of pain.
In addition, stress fractures are more often unilateral, whereas shin splints can often be bilateral. Yes, they both are related to an increase in workload; however, stress fractures have more localized, sharp, intense pain reporting than shin splints.
Shin Splints Rehab Principles
Now that you have an understanding of what shin splints are and what can contribute to them, let’s get into the meat and potatoes of how to tackle shin splints with rehab!
- Acute Phase: Relative rest utilizing POLICE principle (RICE is OUT!), which is protection, optimal loading, ice, compression, and elevation. Ice which is heavily debated within literature may be used in this acute phase as an analgesic. Whether it will address any swelling at the level of the tissue is still debated within literature. Listen to our podcast on this topic to learn more about icing and its indications!
LISTEN: THE TRUTH ABOUT ICING INJURIES
- Alter training program: Address the volume, duration, and frequency of the specific training program for the individual to prevent overload to the body. Also, educate on proper sleep and recovery!
- Start with cross-training as well as more forgiving training surfaces: The ground reaction force through the foot up to the shins needs to be reduced initially to allow for adequate recovery before graded exposure.
- Examples of better surfaces would be even surfaces such as a track.
- Cross training such as swimming, biking, and other lower to minimal impact activities are great. This allows for continued conditioning of the cardiovascular system, which helps maintain fitness levels aerobically in addition to creating a pumping mechanism throughout the body, that assists with tissue healing!
- Address muscle strength and/or flexibility imbalances:
- Flexibility: Play special attention to the calf complex, as this area is highly associated with medial tibial stress syndrome
- Core weakness is a risk factor for lower extremity injuries
- Foot intrinsic strengthening especially if individuals are over pronated (have a flat arch)
- Muscle imbalances throughout the kinetic chain
- Female Athletes: Consider the female athlete triad, as additional consults with nutrition, primary care physicians, and sports medicine psychologists may be warranted. Interdisciplinary care is essential in this situation!
- Check Footwear: This is variable depending on who you discuss this topic with, but generally, shoes should change around every 200-500 miles of usage, and in some instances, a consult with a podiatrist for orthotics may be warranted.
Best Exercises For Shin Splints
Here are some progressive exercises as well as indications as to why these are some of the best exercises for shin splints rehab!
Wall Calf Stretch – Knee Bent (Soleus Bias)
- HOW: Get set-up standing with a wall in front of you and place your hands on the wall. Take a step back with the side you plan to stretch, let the knee be bent and keep it bent. While keeping the foot you stepped back with flat on the ground, knee bent, and toes facing 12 o’clock, slowly lean and shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch.
- FEEL: You should feel a stretch in the calf of the foot that is behind you, specifically lower in your calf above your ankle. You shouldn’t feel pain or a pinch in front of your ankle.
- COMPENSATION: Be sure to keep your back foot facing 12 o’clock, do not let your foot turn out or in. Try to keep your heel down. Be sure to keep the knee bent
Wall Calf Stretch – Knee Straight, 3D (Gastrocnemius Bias)
The calf complex is often involved in the development of shin splints, specifically tightness of the muscles and/or weakness. This 3D stretch with the knee straight will bias the gastrocnemius calf muscle that cross the knee joint and ankle joint.
The Best Stretches For Runners
Looking for more awesome stretches post-run? Check out this video and follow along!
Dead Bug- Anti-rotation, Band
Core imbalances are important to address, as this is a risk factor for lower extremity injuries.
Side Plank – Hip Abduction
Particular hip muscles help stabilize our pelvis when walking, running, and doing other activities. This side plank with hip abduction is one of the best activation exercises for the gluteus medius!
Single Leg Woodpecker
Foot intrinsic strengthening is very important, especially if flat footed or if one has poor control of their foot.
Eccentric Single Leg Heel Raise – Knee Bent
Eccentrics are essential to strengthen muscles against gravity as they lengthen, which translates specifically to sport and other daily activities.
Seated Ankle Dorisflexion – Kettlebell
This is a great way to train the dorsiflexors of the foot/ankle complex, which is often a culprit of shin splints. Focus on slowly lowering the weight back towards the floor to gain the biggest benefit from this movement.
Return to Activity
Here are some other key points and exercise indications for getting back to your activity after having shin splints!
Rules to Follow For Return To Running
When it comes time to run, the University of Delaware Return To Running Protocol is one we highly recommend. Two simple modifications with running that can also help with avoiding further shin splint aggravations are:
- Running ‘soft’ – think about making less noise with each step
- Increase step rate – increased step rate is associated with lower Ground Reaction Forces (GRF), which is basically the forces imposed on the body with running everytime you make contact with the ground. A great article recently came out supporting this can reduce the risk of bone stress injuries!
This is an example of a lower level plyometric exercise that can be added when an athlete is starting to be exposed to jumping activity. There is a systematic approach to progressing jumping and plyometric exercises. Read more on Plyometric Progressions For Rehab!
Differentiating why an individual is experiencing lower leg pain can be difficult to ascertain as a healthcare provider. Moreover, it is of utmost importance to make an accurate diagnosis to ensure these injuries do not become more serious. Shin splints start as a gradual pain in the lower leg and can become more severe the more that one places stress through this area of the body. Starting with relative rest and progressing towards fundamental exercises to address any deficits present will help optimize the recovery process! If you are dealing with lower leg pain that is not responding to rest, be sure to seek medical advice from a trained healthcare professional.
- Winters, K. K., Kostishak, N., McLeod, T. V., & Welch Bacon, C. E. (2014). Treatment of Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome: A Critical Review. International Journal of Athletic Therapy & Training, 19(4), 27-31.
- Fredericson, M., Bergman, A. G., Hoffman, K. L., & Dillingham, M. S. (1994). Tibial stress reaction in runners: Correction of clinical symptoms and scintigraphy with a new magnetic resonance imaging grading system to define a progression of injury from shin splints to stress fracture. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 75(9), 1026. doi:10.1016/0003-9993(94)90699-8
- Hak, D. J., Fitzpatrick, D., Bishop, J. A., Marsh, J. L., Tilp, S., Schnettler, R., Alt, V. (2014). Delayed union and nonunions: Epidemiology, clinical issues, and financial aspects. Injury, 45. doi:10.1016/j.injury.2014.04.002
- Moen, M. H., Bongers, T., Bakker, E. W., Zimmermann, W. O., Weir, A., Tol, J. L., & Backx, F. J. (2010). Risk factors and prognostic indicators for medial tibial stress syndrome. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 22(1), 34-39. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01144.x
About The Author
[P]Rehab Head of Content
Sherif graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree and a concentration in Kinesiology. He then received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy Degree from DeSales University, graduating with honors of the professional excellence award and research excellence award. After his graduate studies, he served as Chief Resident of the St. Luke’s Orthopedic Physical Therapy Residency Program. Sherif is a Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. Sherif focuses on understanding how movement impairments are affecting function while also promoting lifestyle changes in order to prevent recurrences of injury. His early treatment interests include running related injuries, adolescent sports rehab, and ACL rehab in lower extremity athletes. He also has been involved in performance training for youth soccer players. Outside of working as a physical therapist, he enjoys traveling, running and cycling, following Philadelphia sports teams, and spending time with his family.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.