Shin splints can be the bane of exercising, often times putting us out of commission for a while. However, once you know a bit more about them and how to remedy them, you can add some exercise in your fitness plan to keep running, hitting the gym, whatever sort of training you prefer.
Let’s look at the anatomy of this easily fixed issue. The main muscle involved is the Tibialis Anterior. The muscle starts at the outer top part of you shin, runs down and across your shin and finishes on the inner part of your foot, at the base of your big toe.
The beautiful muscle is mainly responsible for our ankle dorsiflexion or in non geeky terms point you foot up. When you run, you push off the ground with your foot and the foot is pointing down and away form your leg. As you bring your leg back forward, your foot bends back up towards you leg, that’s the anterior tibialis working for you.
Our body doesn't have a lot of muscles that assist the anterior tib since is rather small action. However, even a small action, repeated frequently on an untrained muscle can strain it. In this particular case, it causes shin splints.
The causes of shin splints can be summarized easily: there’s a muscle imbalance between this muscle and the muscles at the back of you calf, the soleus and gastrocnemius. When we don't exercise regularly and then jump back into it, especially running, it’s completely normal that this happens. On a day to day basis, we tend to use our calf muscles a lot more than our anterior tib. Think about all the times you extended your feet vs all the time you actively flex them.
This muscular imbalance can either cause a micro tear in the anterior tib (cause 1 of shin spints) or irritates it and makes it swell, which in turn irritates the bone around it (cause 2).
Shin splints can lead to stress fractures that can in turn lead to more issues if they go untreated. I stress fracture is a micro tear in your bone, they can barely be seen on X-rays but they are a serious problem.
Thankfully, most of us don't train enough to get there. Stress fracture complications is more common in high level sports!
Fixing your shin splints
Since shin splints are a muscular issue, it’s very easy to fix! Apply the same principles that you would address with any other muscles.
When a muscle is irritated, you need to:
1. Check for muscle imbalances and rectify them
2. Actively heal that muscle via stretching, mobility and foam rolling
3. Let it rest and ice it
Check out the video below to see how we can apply that to healing our shin splints
1. Fixing the imbalances: strengthen the anterior tib and stretch your calfs
When starting to run again, I would recommend you do 3 sets of 1 minute of duck walks before AND after the run. You can also do intervals of regular running and duck walks.
Duck walk: in a standing position, lift your toes off the ground so that only your heel are touching it. Walk around like that. You will feel it in front of your shin.
A typical run structure could be:
A. Duck walk before and after
3 sets of 1 minute, rest 30 seconds in between
However long you choose to
3 sets of 1 minute, rest 30 seconds in between
B. Duck walk during the run
Repeat the following 4-5 times
2. Stretch it out
You can stretch out you anterior tib with the stretch demonstrated below. But make sure you also stretch out your calve! Since there can be a muscle imbalance, it means that your calve is much stronger than your anterior tib and most likely very, very tight. If your calf is super tight, it’s applying forces directly opposite of the ones your anterior tib is supposed to do.
Check out the other stretch below and give some love to your calve.
Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Gently press your toes down and slowly drag your knee forward.
Bend the knee a little and lean that leg forward while keeping your heel on the ground. Play around with the angle of your knee as it will affect different area of you calf.
Hold these for 1 min on each side.
A good stretching routine to do after you run with duck walk is to alternate between these two stretches. Stretch out both Anterior Tibs for 30 seconds and then stretch out both you calves for a minute and repeat three to five times.
3. Foam roll
Foam roll is only a quick fix pain reliever in my eyes, but I love to use it! Incorporated into a smart stretching routine, it helps a lot with long term pain relief.
Foam roll your anterior tib. Make sure you are on the outer side of the tibia. It may hurt a lot more at the top near the knee, so go gentle.
Roll up two inches and then roll down 1 inch and then repeat all the way up your tibia.
Do it on your calves as well, same drill.
4. Rest and ice
Still the most relevant way of dealing with pain, take it slow, ice it and take care of it! 3 rounds of 10 minutes per day will do wonders for you.
The best way to deal with shin splints is simply to avoid them. Here are some easy tips to follow in order to avoid shin splints altogether.
1. Run properly
Running may come naturally to all of us, but running safely and efficiently is a learned skill. The most important piece of advice is to LAND ON THE BALLS OF THE FEET. This means that when your foot hits the ground, the heel is in the air and all of the front half of your foot is in the air.
If you are not familiar with this type of running, please, please, please ease yourself into it. Even though this method is better on the long term, it can be har