If you suffer from shin splints, the pain you're experiencing won't go away entirely if you focus solely on strengthening the shins. This used to be the go-to fix for treating this ailment. But, the updated approach to clearing up and preventing shin splints actually involves strengthening less obvious muscles.
The "shins" are actually a group of muscles and bones that make up the front lower part of your leg. For runners, the most well known muscle in the shin area is called the tibialis anterior, which is responsible for dorsiflexing and inverting your foot. The primary bone runners are concerned with is the tibia, although the fibia can present problems as well.
The Role of the Shins and Common Reasons for Injury
The shin bone helps absorb and dissipate the impact generated with each foot fall during running.
Much like a beam on a bridge or in a skyscraper bows slightly when it's supporting a lot of weight, your tibia bends backwards slightly on impact with the ground, putting compressive forces on the medial side of the bone.
In healthy runners, the stress a bone experiences after a long, hard run is not a problem. The body responds to the stress on the bone by remodeling the tibia to become stronger and thicker. This is why shin problems are more common in less experienced runners: their bone has not yet adapted to the stresses of a high-impact activity like running.
How to Strengthen the Shins to Prevent Injuries
The outdated theory on preventing shin splints was that tightness or weakness of the shin muscles caused them to tug at their insertion point, irritating the periosteum, a thin, skin-like structure that envelopes the tibia itself. This is why a common treatment for shin splints is to complete shin-strengthening exercises with a theraband.
Unfortunately, because this outdated view is not the real cause of shin splints, strengthening the tibialis anterior will only help prevent shin splints slightly—mostly because it's such a small muscle and its primary function is dorsiflexion of the ankle, not shock absorption.
In reality, improving calf strength, abductor strength and pelvic stability are a better approach to preventing shin splints.
The calves are the largest muscle group in the lower leg (more on them in the fourth article in this series), and strengthening them will help you stabilize the tibia with each impact. Moreover, the size of your calves is directly related to the size and strength of your tibia since the tibia "grows" in response to the muscles around it.
Likewise, several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between hip abductor strength and shin splints. Specifically, studies have shown that runners with shin splints had significantly worse hip abduction strength and more motion in their torsos and hips when they landed and pushed off, compared to healthy runners.
Therefore, the most effective exercises for strengthening your shins and preventing shin splints are calf raises and hip abductor exercises.
Instructions: Keep the pelvis perpendicular to the floor rather than rolling backwards, which is a way to cheat during this exercise. Keeping your feet stacked one on top of the other and together, lift your knee up, then bring it back down. Work up to 20 repetitions on each leg. For additional difficulty, wrap a theraband around your knees. It is not OK to substitute this exercise for the multi hip machine at the gym.