Shin splints have been the boon of many a runner, especially those in the midst of either a more intense or a greater volume of training than usual. The little muscles in the fronts of your shins are just not used to the repetitive impact of that many foot strikes. Luckily, shin splints can be eliminated and prevented with just a few key exercises and healing measures.
I had shin splints first during one high school track season; this was my first and most intense bout of shin splints, I think mostly because I was a newer runner. All subsequent shin trouble that I experienced in college was far less severe and lasted only a few days at a time. I don’t want to say that shin splints are just a rite of passage for new runners, as that is not true, but I do know a lot of my fellow running friends had similar experiences of a bad case of shin splints early in their running careers. Regardless, shin splints results from too much trauma to your poor little (and likely neglected) shin muscles.
During my high school shin splints, my mom and I developed a hot/cold treatment where I would get to just sit in a chair in the living room and my poor mom would bring me buckets of either extremely hot or extremely cold water. Besides the whole shin splints thing, this was really a rather nice treatment—I got to just chill and watch TV while my mom switched out the buckets! (As the oldest of four children, I promise that I was not always this spoiled!) Over the years of my running, I’ve accumulated a whole slew of additional tactics—not dependent on a mom filling buckets—to prevent and treat shin splints before they cause any real interruption to your training.
For anyone experiencing shin pain, hang in there. We can make this go away for good. Read on below for four comprehensive goals to keep in mind when treating shin splints. Target all four of these and you will be well on your way to happy shins. Towards that end, below I give you highly specific exercises to accomplish each of these general goals and ultimately heal and strengthen your shins. These are all the exercises that I have both relied upon myself and shared with others to successfully treat shin pain.
1. Stretch your shin muscles.
a.) Before and after running, trace the alphabet with your big toe. (Do this from standing, one foot at a time.) This loosens up all the muscles in the fronts of your shins. (I first heard about this from the cross country coach at Greensburg Central Catholic when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school—it works!)
b.) You could also make a concerted effort during any yoga practice to do some ankle circles—just trace some circles with your big toe. I like to do this while in downdog with one leg extended towards the sky, so I’m getting some additional leg stretching at the same time.
c.) Finally a great yoga pose to stretch your shins and the fronts of your ankles is virasana. From a kneeling position, bring knees together and keep them together throughout the pose (knees always together here!). Roll both calves outward, and then immediately sit between your heels, not on your heels. If this is too intense, sit on a rolled up blanket or a yoga block instead of directly on the floor. Pause for a minute here, then gently walk hands forward to come to hands and knees, and windshield-wiper heels side to side to stretch out calves. (Hover over the slideshow for additional tips on how to use these poses to stretch your shins.)
2. Strengthen your shin muscles.
Any sort of dorsiflexion exercise will help strengthen those smaller shin muscles too. Here are two simple ones to do:
a.) Wall dorsiflexion: Stand with your back to a wall. Use one of your feet to measure from the wall to the end of your toes. Now with your back still to the wall, step both feet that distance from the wall. Keeping your heels in place, just lift and lower your toes a couple inches from the floor back to the floor. Aim for at least 20 reps. You want to pretend like the floor is hot--be quicker in your movements to and from the ground, and instead pause with feet lifted. (I learned this one at Bucknell Cross Country Camp, at their indoor fieldhouse, in approximately 2001. My college teammates also probably remember seeing me do many, many reps of this in the weightroom!)
b.) Weighted bench dorsiflexion: Sit on the edge of a bench and use your hands to support a LIGHT--maybe 1-2 lb.--weight on your foot. Heel is planted on the end of the bench to allow for your foot to freely move up and down. Pivoting from your ankle, lift and lower your toes. Just do 10-15 reps, but be sure to do both sides. Support the weight on your foot throughout this exercise, and do this while wearing shoes! (Hover over slideshow for additional tips for these exercises.)
3. Eliminate inflammation.
a.) Traumeel, now under the name “T-Relief” is an anti-inflammatory cream sold at Whole Foods and it totally totally works. I had shin splints in college, put this on at night, and in the morning was seriously all better. I recently bought some for my running buddy who was having foot trouble and now her foot is fine too. This fall, one of my yoga students was having such intense shin splints that she was having difficulty walking without pain. I told her about this stuff, she went out and got it, and then sent me an email the next morning saying that she agreed with me that this stuff was magical—she was great! Note: T-Relief is in NO way paying me to say this. This stuff just really really works. I am not the sort of person to be buying into “magical creams” but for knocking out some inflammation, I don’t think you can beat this stuff.
b.) Hot/cold treatments: ideally, you have an ice bucket with water as hot as you can handle and another with water as cold as you can handle, and you alternate between these for 15 min. at a time, ending with cold. An easier version of this would be to visit a hot tub (find one at your gym) and bring a big bag of ice with you. First, throw the ice bag on your shins for 7-8 min., then sit at the edge of the hot tub for 8-10 soaking your legs, and repeat. Just keep the ice on long enough for your shins to get numb feeling (usually 7-8 min. or so).
Lastly, another simple option is to fill small dixie cups with water, freeze these, and then peel back the top of the cup until you get to the ice--use this as an ice massager for your your shins.
4. Support your shins.
Consider getting some compression socks to help support your shin muscles while they heal. Whatever brand you get, choose one that measures by calf circumference rather than shoe size. When not running or racing, try wearing any kind of slightly taller socks with some kind of slight compressive quality to the fabric—even this small amount of support will be helpful while your shins are acting up.
Last but not least, don’t stand up for 4 straight hours at your first Notre Dame football game and try to do a long run at Bertrand the very next day. Yes, I did this my freshman year, was practically hobbling at mile 3 or so of our Sunday long run, and had to be picked up by my coach in the van. While I was not exactly experiencing shin splints, I did not realize how much you actually do use your shins to stand up! Use a little bit of common sense—don't stand up for four straight hours before a long run, be sure you have appropriate shoes for your foot type, etc.—and along with the suggestions above, get running faster than ever without interference from your shins.