In both cases, the previously mentioned muscles must also be addressed. Stretching, SMR, and a few basic strengthening exercises are the big weapons here. Never, I repeat, NEVER do any running or loaded movement events without properly warming up your legs. Stretch your calves from every angle you can find, turning your foot in different directions to hit all the intrinsic muscles of the lower leg. You should also stretch your anterior tibialis by placing your toe point on the ground and extending your hips until you feel a nice pull in your ankle and on the outside of your shin. Perform your regular hip mobility circuits to make sure they are rotating properly during your movements. Also make sure to work on your ankle mobility. One way to do this is to sit in a squat and rock your knees forward over each foot individually and hold. As far as total time for this, do what you feel is necessary to improve your mobility, as it will depend on where you are currently at. And for God’s sake, roll! Using a pipe, foam roller, ball, or your torture equipment of choice, roll out the soles of your feet, your anterior and posterior lower legs (including your Achilles tendons; fair warning, this hurts like hell), your quads, your IT bands, and the muscles of the hip girdle. Your shins will thank you.
As far as strengthening exercises, anterior tibialis weakness in comparison to the gastrocnemius helps to contribute to shin splints in a big way, especially in the case of anterior tibialis tendonitis. Because we use our calves in so many exercises, the posterior lower leg is often extremely over-developed in relation to the anterior. This, like any imbalance, is bad news. The fix for this is relatively simple: multidirectional toe raises. To perform these, first anchor a light band to something. Then lay on the ground and loop your foot through the band so that it is just proximal to the base of your toes. Pull your toes towards you, keeping smooth tension in the band throughout. No jerky motions or huge thick bands; you are not going to impress anyone with your toe raise prowess, and will probably wind up having your foot slip out and kick you in the face. If you are going to do it that way, please put it on YouTube so I can laugh at you. Do 15 reps per leg of each of the following: toes pointed in, toes pointed forwards, and toes pointed out. If you do this every day, steadily adding in more sets, you should be able to help reduce the imbalance.
So what if you already have shin splints? My condolences. They suck. No getting around that. There are some solid and essentially free treatments for them, though. First and foremost, rest. Multiple studies and my own clinical experience has indicated that the best way to calm these things down is to stop doing what caused them in the first place. Since I know that nobody wants to take time off, there are other options. In addition to all the preventative measures above (especially getting the right damn shoes!), you can adjust your training to save your shins. CrossFolk, sub out multiple sprints for your longer distance runs to keep your cardio up. You can also replace distance runs with hiking to get a similar muscular and cardivoascular stimulus without the impact. Biking and swimming are also excellent low-impact ways to keep your conditioning while avoiding distance running. For strongmen, lower the weight on your yoke walks and carries. Train them for speed, distance, and proper movement patterns instead. This is why many high level strongmen train heavy yoke walks very sparingly. There is no reason to trash yourself under a heavy implement day in and day out if you do not have a specific competition in mind. Another treatment method is an ice massage. Take a dixie cup, fill it with water, and freeze it. When it is frozen, massage the affected areas with it until it melts to the point that you can no longer do so. This will help to alleviate the pain and reduce inflammation, so do it after every training session and while relaxing on rest days. Epsom salt baths are another great option, and you can actually do some of your stretches in the bath. What runners call “the death stick” can help as well, and also falls into the category of SMR for prevention. It looks similar to a rolling pin, and can be used to roll out the lower legs very effectively, even if it is extremely painful.
Now that you’ve read this, you can probably agree that it’s time to make some changes. So go throw your toe shoes in the trash, grab a roller and some bands, and get to work. Let’s leave the shin splints to those chicken-legged, multiple-trips-for-the-groceries, ET-looking people who think running 26.2 miles is a good way to spend a Sunday.
Seth Larsen has a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology and Neuroscience and is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine candidate for 2015 at Midwestern University. He is a former NASM-CPT and student athletic trainer. He currently serves as a reserve officer in the US Navy Medical Corps while he finishes medical school with a specialization in primary care sports medicine. Seth is a former NCAA football player who now competes as a LW (105kg) strongman, Highland Games athlete, and raw powerlifter.
1. Murphy, K, Curry, E, Matzkin, E. “Barefoot Running: Does It Prevent Injuries?” Sports Medicine,
2013. Vol 43(11): 1131.
2. Yuksel, O, Cengizhan, O, Ergun, M, Islegen, C, Taskiran, Denerel, N, Ertat, A. “Inversion/eversion strength dysbalance in patients with medial tibial stress syndrome.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine,
2011. Vol 10: 737-742.
3. Moen, M, Schmikli, S, Weir, A, Steeneken, V, Stapper, G, Slegte, R, Tol, J, Backx, F. “A prospective study on MRI findings and prognostic factors in athletes with MTSS.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports,
2014. Vol 24(1): 204.
4. Craig, D. “Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome: Evidence-Based Prevention.” Journal of Athletic Training,
2008. Vol 43(3): 316-318.
5. Moen, M, Tol, J, Weir, A, Steunebrink, De Winter, T. “Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome: A Critical Review.” Sports Medicine,
2009. Vol 39(7): 523-546.
6. Newman, P, Witchalls, J, Waddington, G, Adams, R. “Risk factors associated with medial tibial stress syndrome in runners: a systematic meta-analysis.” Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine,
2013. Vol 4: 229-241.
7. Tolbert, T, Binkley, H. “Treatment and Prevention of Shin Splints.” Strength and Conditioning Journal,
2009. Vol 31(5): 69-72.
8. Image sourced from: http://www.doereport.com/generateexhibit.php?A=&ExhibitKeywordsRaw=&ID=690&TL=