Athlete's Guide to Shin Splints

Shin splints stink. Such a painful injury, and one that is often hard to overcome without taking time away from activity, shin splints are no fun for anyone. Chances are if you’ve been around sports for any period of time you have either had to hear a teammate constantly complain about their shins hurting or you have been that a-hole. Well right now I have the worst shin splints of my life and I am definitely the a-hole!

In an attempt to be bearable for those around me to talk to, I’m selfishly writing this article to go over everything an athlete needs to know about shin splints. How they happen, what they are, how to prevent them, and most importantly if your body has forced you to read this, how to deal with shin splints once you already have them.

Just like all of my other articles where I talk about maximizing the controllable factors of athletic performance, I think it’s important to detail exactly what’s happening inside of your body that’s causing you pain before telling you how to fix it. I personally feel more inclined to do my prehab/rehab exercises when I know exactly why I am doing them.

What Are Shin Splints

Shin splints are simply when the muscles around the tibia become inflamed due to constant tugging at insertion points, resulting in pain in the local area. This can occur on either side of the tibia and are caused by different stimuli. Shin splints on the medial or inside of the tibia is the posterior tibialis muscle being agitated while the anterior tibialis muscle is to blame for shin splints laterally to the tibia. Both types can be equally painful and difficult to recover from.

Diagram of Posterior vs. Anterior Shin Splints

Shin splints are simply when the muscles around the tibia become inflamed due to constant tugging at insertion points

How Do You Get Shin Splints

Repetitive Ground Contact

Repetition is the killer for shin splints. The repetitive contact with the ground that happens in tons of sports like basketball, running, volleyball, and tennis to name a few, cause the inflammation and pain that come with shin splints. Frequent, sharp forces on the lower limb and the surrounding muscles make the inflammation worse and the surrounding areas weaker.

Improper Running Form

If you tend to overstride while running, you are most likely putting yourself in a heel strike position. To stop your foot from slamming to the ground, your body naturally signals for your anterior tibialis to slow things down, creating a smooth step. Of course in the moment you might not feel this muscle working, but over time, the amount of force that this muscle has to withstand becomes unbearable and that’s when microtears and shin splints come out.

Repetitive Contact on Hard Surfaces

Running or playing sports on concrete or other hard surfaces are without a doubt a huge component when talking about shin splints. Grass, turf, or even hardwood floors have more natural give than concrete, helping them disperse some force, and giving less directly back into your legs.

Photo of dude running on a track

Any sort of repetitive contact is a huge contributor to shin splints. It’s even more lethal while training on hard surfaces and/or in improper footwear.

Flat Feet

Individuals with flat feet tend to overpronate, leaving them with a higher chance of feeling the wrath of shin splints. Instead of having an arch to be the nice natural spring used to support you and absorb force while performing activity, the inwards rolling of the foot that occurs in feet with low arches twists the tibia, in turn creating greater than usual amounts of tension in the muscles of the lower shank.

I’m certainly not saying that you can’t get shin splints if you have a high, strong natural arch, but your chances are much lower than somebody with flat feet. Luckily for myself and all the other suffering overpronated people, there are a couple of methods we can use to mitigate the pain of shin splints.

Shin Splints Prevention/Treatment

Building an Arch To Treat/Prevent Shin Splints

Building a strong arch of the foot is going to be crucial for the prevention and treatment of shin splints. As mentioned in the previous section on flat feet, a strong arch will act as a natural spring to absorb and produce force, with no tibial twisting occurring. In saying this, it is crucial to build a strong arch to help treat shin splints, regardless of flat feet or not. Here are some exercises to help build up a strong arch.

Exercises To Build a Strong Arch

  1. Towel Scrunch

    Lay out a towel in front of you while seated in a chair. Use your toes to grasp the towel and bring it towards you. Feel the burn.

    Photo of towel scrunch exercise, Great Coach Ozzy Feet Pic

  2. Standing Arch Flexion

    While standing, shift your weight to the outside portion of your feet while trying to “shorten” your foot without flexing your toes.

    Photo of standing arch flexion exercise to prevent shin splints
  3. Shoeless Weight on Toe Calf Raises

    Find a small ledge (stairs work great) that you can perform a calf raise on. Work through the full range of motion, trying to keep your weight on the big toe if possible.

    Photo of calf raise exercise to prevent shin splints

Using Insoles/Orthotics To Treat Shin Splints

I can credit insoles with solving so many injuries in my sporting career. Ankles, heels, knees, back, you name it and insoles have played a role in fixing it. Inserting arch raising insoles into the shoes that you use to train and compete help fix the biomechanical disadvantage of flat feet that so many of us face. There is now no way that overpronation can occur as there is a physical barrier blocking it.

There are so many insoles out there, but these are the ones I use. All you have to do is pick your size range and when they come, cut them down to match the profile of the flimsy ineffective insoles that came in the shoe. Insoles do have a lifetime, however, and must be replaced ever so often (Usually recommended around 6 months, but varies depending on amount of use and type of insole) to ensure they haven’t yet turned into rocks after losing all of the spring that they came with.

Photo of overpronation fixed by shoes with insoles

Inserting orthotics into your shoes can coordinate correct alignment and help fix shin splints.

Treating Shin Splints Using Ice

It is certainly encouraged to ice your shin splints whenever possible to reduce some of the inflammation and swelling that occurs. Right after a practice or game swelling is usually at its worst, but continuous icing of 3-4 times a day for 20 minutes is the most effective for reducing inflammation.

Should You Take Medication For Shin Splints?

I’m not a big fan of using medication when not necessary, but some sort of ibuprofen drug like Advil can be a super helpful anti-inflammatory in your efforts to reduce swelling.

Stretches and Foam Rolling For Shin Splints

Any sort of calf stretch will help reduce some of the tension in your muscles. Foam rolling all around the calf will be beneficial for similar reasons. While these strategies are good short term solutions and can help you get through a practice or workout, I would recommend some of my other tips first to get longer lasting results.

There are millions of foam rolling and specific stretches for shin splints videos all over YouTube so I won’t bother beating a dead dog further, but find what works for you and begin to utilize it. Here are a couple super simple stretches and foam rolling techniques that will provide some temporary relief.

Photo of various shin stretches for shin splints

Left: Straight-Leg Calf Stretch
Right: Tibialis Anterior Muscle Stretch

Photo of rolling positions to treat shin splints

Some of my favourite rolling positions. Make sure to hit the inside, outside, and middle of both your calf and front of shin.

Taking Time Away From Activity To Treat Shin Splints

In season, when tensions are high and athletes are competing for paychecks, scholarships, or even a starting role on the team, I don’t find this option very reasonable. Sure, this is essentially the most effective way to temporarily treat shin splints and is certainly reasonable to implement during the off-season, but good luck telling most athletes to sit out when their spot on the team depends on it.

I recommend focusing on some of the other techniques I have discussed first, but if participation becomes unbearable or they are flaring up in the off-season, take some time away from activity and focus on rehabilitation. If this is the case, it’s important to get an X-ray to rule out a stress fracture or else very little of the above information will be of much use.

Photo of dude running on a track

Taking time away from sport and activity is a measure that athlete’s hate the idea of, but might be the only solution to uncontrollable shin splints.

Apply Stress In a Periodized Way To Avoid Shin Splints

Something that some coaches seem to neglect, is how fast high volumes of stress are being applied to their athletes. Your body simply doesn’t have time to adapt to the new stimulus being rapidly thrown at it, and injuries can occur as a result. If your body isn’t expecting, as well as physiologically ready, for the stress that is coming, there’s not much you can do besides hope that you don’t get injured.

If you find that your Coach isn’t getting you ready for high volumes of ground contact in a systematic, progressive fashion, it’s time you take some control and build a rough plan for yourself. Start small, and progressively build up the amount of volume you are going to see at the beginning of your season. Not only will you be more resistant to injury, but the competitive advantage that you will have over those around you will be substantial.

Build A Routine To Kill Your Shin Splints

Just like most things here at Sled Dog Development, routine is going to be the single most important thing you have control over when trying to get rid of shin splints. One arch exercise and calf stretch randomly throughout your week is not the solution and will frankly do nothing. Come up with a time or place that you will always remember to perform your routine and follow it religiously.

This can be as simple as doing 2 arch exercises, a calf stretch, and foam rolling every morning or before each workout and practice. Once you have locked that in as a habit, begin icing your muscles 3 times a day at set times. Each additional step will be key to moving forward as an athlete that no longer has to deal with shin splints.

Power List Dustin Watten's lists after a couple years

Habit is one of the pillars that Sled Dog Development relies on to build championship athletes. Creating a Power List is an excellent way to create and maintain new habits.

Ozzy’s Action of The Week

I feel as if having new knowledge is useless unless there is a way to apply it. That is why each week, I want to leave you all with something based on that week’s article that you can apply immediately to enhance performance.

This week, I want you to build a shin splint routine. Regardless of if you’ve had shin splints in the past or not, building a shin splints routine is important if you are competing in any sport requiring high volumes of ground contacts. It’s much easier to do a couple daily exercises to avoid the injury than to rehab it while under the high-stress environment that a full season brings.

Make sure to connect with me on Instagram @OzzyStrength and let me know what has worked for your shin splints in the past. Also, scroll down and sign up for my weekly newsletter for additional performance-enhancing opportunities and to make sure you never miss out on a post!

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