It comes unexpectedly and appears as a throbbing lower leg pain that exacerbates when you try to move. The discomfort ceases when you stop moving, and there’s a red, sore spot that hurts when you press on it.
An overuse injury, shin splints periodically derail up to 35 percent of the athletes and 20 percent of the running population. It is not in every runner, athlete or fitness enthusiast’s bucket list, yet it happens too often, especially after spending more time working out or increasing one’s mileage.
Sure, the good-old RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method helps, but do you know that stretching exercises can also accelerate shin splint recovery?
If you’re stuck at home nursing a debilitating shin splint injury or just curious to know more about the condition, read on to discover how you can get back on your feet in no time.
What are shin splints?
Medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), a shin splint is a catch-all phrase for lower leg pain and injuries. It is the most common exercise-related impairment that afflicts the tibia or the shin – the largest bone located in your lower leg – and its attached muscles and tendons.
Why do shin splints happen?
Shin splints happen because of repetitive stress and strain on the lower leg. Certain biomechanical factors make an individual more vulnerable – whether an athlete, runner, dancer, military staff or a plain Joe or Jane. Flat or high-arched feet, weak hip and calf muscles and poor running form are among the contributors to shin splint problems.
Doing too much, too soon, neglecting stretching exercises, running on hard and uneven surfaces, wearing improper footwear and a drastic change in exercise or running routine are some of the external factors that can worsen the injury.
Shin splints and the RICE method
Much as it is a common occurrence, shin splints are also quite easy to manage. Runners, athletes and couch potatoes alike have relied on the RICE method as a self-care approach to soft tissue injuries, including shin splints.
To ensure faster healing, rest, icing, compression and elevation should be complemented by light stretches for flexibility and strengthening, as recommended by physical therapists.
How our lower leg works
Our body is an amazing machine, and our lower legs and feet consist of interconnected muscles, tendons and bones that work together to always keep us on solid footing, so to speak.
Below the knee are the calves, comprising the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. These powerhouse muscles make rising up on our toes, standing, running and jumping, among other activities, possible.
The shin, which consists of the anterior tibialis, posterior tibialis, and peronei muscles, provide stability.
Below the calf, our foot holds small muscles that are responsible for our toes and arches. If you have weak foot muscles, your body reacts by letting the bigger muscles, specifically the calf and ankle, compensate for it. On one hand, if your arches are flat, it will cause poor midfoot mobility and weaken the posterior tibialis.
How to recover from shin splints
Apart from the RICE method, it helps to address biomechanical issues and other external factors, such as poor running form, to inhibit shin splint recurrence.
Consult with medical professionals to know which recovery method works best for you. If you suspect that your running or exercise form could be causing your shin splints, let a physical therapist study your movement to help you improve or correct it.
The same goes to individuals with jobs that require strenuous or repetitive actions. In addition, ensure that you are using appropriate shoes, accessories and clothing as these, too, when worn down, may put extra stress on the shins.
Individuals with long-term, untreated shin pain will have healing delays, and experts usually recommend stretching and strengthening exercises that target the calf and tibialis, hamstring and glute, as well as core work.
How stretches and exercise help in shin splint recovery
Stretches condition your muscles and increase their flexibility, while specific exercises can strengthen them against the normal stresses of your physical activities.
Performing regular stretches to promote strength and flexibility allows you to improve your mileage or increase your activity without worrying that your muscles and tendons won’t be able to get the job done.
In general, runners and athletes are taught how to perform proper calf stretching and corrective biomechanical measures to prevent shin splints.
For athletes whose activities involve start and stop movements, such as for tennis and soccer players, medical providers recommend an exercise program that improves calf and ankle flexibility, knee strength and core strength and balance.
10 stretches to help treat shin splints fast
It is sensible to cure shin splint pain by targeting the calf and shin muscles, an interconnected network of muscles, including the tendons and bones attached to them, with stretches. The healing and strengthening process won’t be complete without aiming for foot and ankle flexibility.
So here goes the 10 best stretches to heal your shin splints in no time.
Tight calf muscles contribute to shin pain because the muscles in front of them would have to work extra hard to compensate. Loosen up your calf muscles with these stretches:
1. Gastrocnemius calf stretch
This dual-headed muscle is located at the back of the leg and runs from the knee to the heel.
You’ll need: A sturdy wall or a sturdy chair
- Standing up, place your hands against a wall or on the back of a chair for support.
- Put your right foot behind you. Keep your feet flat and pointed straight ahead.
- While keeping your back heel down and back leg straight, bend the front knee until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg.
- Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds.
- Return to your starting position and do the same on your other leg.
- Repeat the stretch at least three times per leg.
2. Soleus calf stretch
The soleus is the muscle that allows us to stand up and walk, and it is closely linked to the gastrocnemius muscle.
You’ll need: A sturdy wall or a sturdy chair
- Stand with your hands against a wall or the back of a chair. Make sure the chair is sturdy and can support you.
- Put your right foot behind you, while keeping it flat and pointed straight ahead.
- Slightly bend your front knee. With your back heel down, bend your back knee. If you cannot keep your heel down, try narrowing your stride.
- Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
- Do the same for your other leg.
- Repeat the stretch two or three times, or as many as you like.
Complement these muscle group stretches with strengthening exercises. To know how, check out the instructional booklet, band and cryoball that come with each set of the Magic Gel Shin Splint Ice Packs.
Tendons connect the muscles to the bones, and stretching them will benefit your body in many ways. Apart from facilitating faster recovery from shin splints, stretching also lubricates your joints and connective tissues, and improves your range of motion.
3. Achilles tendon standing stretch
This tendon runs along the back of your lower leg, connecting the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to the back of your heel. Without the Achilles tendon, you won’t be able to propel your body quickly, such as what sprinters do at the start of the race.
You’ll need: An elevated platform
- Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the platform.
- Slowly let one heel hang off the step until you feel a stretch at the back of your leg and the Achilles area.
- Hold the position for 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other heel.
- Aim for up to five repetition on both heels.
4. Posterior tibial tendon stretch
Your posterior tibial tendon runs slightly above your ankle to the inner arch of your foot. Its main function is to hold up the arch and support the foot while walking.
You’ll need: A resistance or stretch band and a leg of a sturdy table or chair
- In a seated position, tie one end of a resistance band around the leg of a chair or table, and the other end around the ball of your foot.
- Extend both legs in front of you and flex your ankle so that your toes are pointing toward the ceiling. You should feel the band pulling your toes away from your body as you flex.
- Hold your knee still.
- Keep this position for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Return back to the starting position and do it for the other leg.
- Repeat for as many reps,sets and as long as you desire.
Shin muscle stretches
Your shin pain may be alleviated and your muscle stiffness addressed by performing these shin muscle stretches.
5. Seated shin stretch
You’ll need: A chair
- Sit to the edge of the chair with your ankles right below and in line with your knees.
- Take your right ankle and place it on top of your left knee.
- Put your left hand on the top of your right foot along your toe knuckles.
- Press your left hand into the top of your right foot to bend the toes. Continue until you feel a stretch along the front of your shin, ankle and foot. You will be pressing your foot toward your left hip.
- Hold this stretch for 10 seconds then relax and release. Repeat the stretch up to five times.
- Switch legs and repeat on your left foot.
6. Anterior tibialis muscle stretch
This exercise stretches the front (anterior) of your tibia muscle, which lowers your forefoot to the ground and keeps your toes from dragging when you take a step.
- While sitting on your feet, with your toes pointing slightly in, place your hands on the floor in front of you.
- Try to increase the stretch by leaning forward to raise yourself up, resting on your toes. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds.
Performing these exercises helps you eliminate shin splint pain and strengthen your ankles, toes and heels, which can further prevent the recurrence of a shin splint.
7. Standing ankle dorsiflexion stretch
Dorsiflexion occurs in your ankles when you draw your toes back to your shins. This action allows for us to walk, run and even squat.
You’ll need: A sturdy wall
- While standing up and facing a wall, keep your knee straight and your heel on the floor.
- Place the front bottom part of your foot against the wall. You will feel your calf muscles stretching.
- Switch to the other leg. Perform three sets of 10 repetitions and increase based on your liking.
8. Low lunge ankle stretch
- Begin by performing a low lunge position with your right foot forward and your left knee down.
- Keep your right heel flat as you draw your right knee forward.
- Continue to draw your knee forward as far as you can to feel a stretch in your lower right calf.
- Stay on this side for one minute then switch to the other leg.
- Work to repeat this three times per set. You can perform a set three times a day.
9. Toe Scrunches
Performing this simple activity helps stretch your arches.
You’ll need: A towel or any fabric
- Stand with your feet apart. Place your right foot on a towel or any fabric on the floor.
- Using the toes of your right foot, gather the towel and slowly pull it toward you.
- Do it with your left foot.
- Complete 10 to 15 repetitions for each foot.
This can serve as a prelude to your next exercises, such as toe raises and walking on your toes, which are aimed at strengthening your foot muscles.
10. Heel stretchesYou’ll need: A stretch band or towel
- Sit down on the floor with your knee bent slightly. Loop a towel or a stretch band around the top of your foot.
- Gently pull back the band or towel with your hand until you feel the stretch in your calf and heel.
- Hold the position for about 10 seconds before switching to the other leg.
- Try to do this for six times a day for each leg.
Safety tips for shin splint stretching
Stretching not only enhances our muscles and tendons, but it also promotes general well being and relaxation by easing anxiety and improving blood circulation.
To make sure you’re getting all the benefits of stretching and to avoid your shin splints from getting worse, follow these simple rules:
- Consult your doctor prior to new exercises – If you’ve just had an injury, it is best to consult with a doctor or a physical therapist before engaging your body in a new regimen.
- Warm-up – Taking a light walk before stretching helps prepare your body for the activity.
- Breathe properly – Breathing deeply helps you relax and perform the stretches properly, while holding your breath affects your blood pressure and causes tension in your muscles.
- Hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds – Do not stretch one muscle for longer than 30 seconds at a time. Overstretching results in muscle contraction and may cause small muscle tears.
- Stop when it’s painful – Stretching can cause discomfort because of muscle tightness, but it should never feel painful. Stretch slowly, moving past slight discomfort. If it’s starting to hurt, you’re pushing too hard.
If you’ve exhausted the self-care techniques but are still in pain, it is time to see your doctor.
When shin splints strike, you can kick them out with simple remedies such as the RICE method and these easy-to-do stretches that also work to prevent shin splint reaggravations.
Perform these stretches regularly along with strengthening exercises and, once you’re fully healed, you’ll be ready to take on more running mileage or exercise routines.