Whether you’re a nine-time marathoner or brand-spankin’ new to the sport, few aches and pains stop you in your tracks (literally) like shin splints.
The term “shin splints” refers to lower leg pain below the knee, either on the front part of the leg or on the inside. Shin splints often feel like a casual stabbing pain piercing through your muscles and bones, signaling the need to cut back on mileage, take a break, and rest.
“When it comes to shin splints, what’s actually happening is micro-tearing of the tibialis anterior muscle from overuse in activity such as running,” says Lisa N. Folden, DPT and owner of Healthy Phit Physical Therapy & Wellness Consultants in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Another huge contributor to shin splints is unsupported medial arches in the feet, which custom orthotics can sometimes help. Additionally, icing, massage, foam rolling, and rest can alleviate pain.”
Luckily, if you’re the proactive type, we’ve got a few stretches and exercises that experts say can possibly keep your legs from succumbing to the misery of shin splints.
Stretches to Lengthen:
Sitting on Heels (tibialis anterior stretch)
Folden says that sitting on your heels helps to stretch and strengthen the muscles acting on the knee and ankle—mainly the tibialis anterior muscle, which aids in flexing your ankle and foot.
With shoes on, sit into a low kneeling position with both ankles pointed up (your feet should be flexed so that the tops of the feet are in contact with the ground). Shift your weight back so you’re pressing down through your heels onto the top of your feet until a deep (but gentle) stretch is felt along your shins. Hold for 30 seconds, release pressure, then repeat twice more.
To stretch the gastrocnemius, start from a standing position and place one foot forward and one foot back into a shallow lunge (your back foot is doing the stretch). Keeping your back leg straight with your heel down, bend your front knee until you feel the stretch in your back leg. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite leg.
To stretch the soleus, assume the same position as the gastrocnemius stretch, but allow your back leg to bend slightly at the knee until a deep stretch is felt along the lower part of the calf muscle. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite leg.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and slowly squat down as far as you can (comfortably!) go while keeping your heels on the ground. Hold this gentle stretch for 10 to 15 seconds, then stand up and relax for five to 10 seconds. Repeat 1-3 times.
“Breathe naturally during the stretch so the muscles can relax,” says Ziya Altug, DPT, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist in Los Angeles. “If needed, hold on to a sturdy object for support and skip this exercise if you feel pain in your back, hips, knees or ankles.”
Standing Wall Stretch
When it comes to stretching the Achilles tendon and calf muscles, Gallucci suggests pressing against a wall.
Facing the wall, step one foot in front of you toward the wall with your leg straight. Raise the toes of your front foot up toward the ceiling and rest the ball of your foot against the wall—you should feel this stretch in your Achilles tendon and calf. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and release to switch feet. Want more? Lean in toward the wall.
Moves to Strengthen:
While stretching that pesky tibialis anterior muscle is key, exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist Tom Holland says that strengthening it is important as well.
While sitting in a chair, keep your feet flat and knees bent to 90 degrees. Raise your toes and the balls of your feet off the ground while keeping your heels down—hold this position for about 10 seconds, then lower your toes back to the ground. The best part about this one? It’s sneaky: “You can do this sitting at your desk, in a restaurant, or even on the toilet,” says Matt Huey, PT.
Huey and Holland both say that you can progress this move by adding some weight. “Try putting an object on your toes and lifting it up and down,” Huey says. Holland even suggests using a light dumbbell if you’re feeling like pumping iron… with your toes.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and (unless you’re a prima ballerina) hold onto a table or the back of a chair. While counting to three, slowly rise until you are standing on your toes. After reaching the top, remove one foot from the ground and slowly lower yourself down until you are standing flat on one foot. Repeat 10 times on each leg.
Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, rock back until you’re balancing on your heels. Hold this position for 10 seconds and then slowly lower the front of your foot to the floor. Start by repeating this for three sets of 10.
“Once you’ve mastered the balance, try walking for 30 seconds without letting your toes hit the floor,” says John Gallucci Jr., MS, DPT. This one is definitely best practiced in your own home—we can’t guarantee people won’t stare if you walk like this in public.
Holland suggests squats on an unstable surface to kick the stabilizer muscles of your lower legs into overdrive.
Standing on an unstable surface (such as a Bosu ball, wobble board, or balance disc), bring your feet to hip-distance. Lower your butt down so your knees bend at about 90 degrees, making sure to keep your knees tracking over your toes. Press into your heels to stand back up, then repeat for to two to three sets of 10-20 repetitions.
Emilia Benton is a freelance writer and editor based in Houston, TX, whose work has appeared in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Self, and Pop Sugar, among other publications. An avid runner, she has finished nine marathons (and a couple dozen half-marathons). She also enjoys country music, baking, and traveling.