If you've ever dealt with shin splints, you know that they can be agonizing. And if you haven't experienced this common exercise-induced pain, you'll want to knock on wood fast. Shin splints can cause intense pain that radiates from your ankle up your shin bone— and they don't go away easily.
"I know this looks so dumb, but I ran [cross country] in high school, and my coach made us do these 'duck walks' to prevent shin splints, and they actually work so well," TikTok user @retiredcowgirlwowgirl wrote. "I just look completely stupid, but anything to prevent injuries."
Whether it’s doing exercises for shin splints or special shin splint stretches, there’s a lot you can do to try to prevent shin splints before they ruin your run. In fact, one viral TikTok claims to hold the key to avoiding shin splints — as long as you can handle the curious stares and strange looks you might get when doing this preventative measure in public, that is.
In this now-viral video with more than 3.1 million views, the runner alternates between duck walks and pigeon walks. First, she walks on her heels with her toes pointed out toward what would be 11 and 1 on a clock for her left foot and right foot, respectively. Then, she reverses the positioning, walking on her toes with her left heel pointed back toward 7 o'clock and right heel pointed back toward 5 o'clock.
Plenty of the people in the comments backed up the TikToker's statements. "You're so right," one wrote. "My college coach made us do it, too, and it's life-changing. Saves a lot of injuries and pains." Someone else chimed in with, "Ran [cross country] for four years and still after [high school] and did this every time. My legs are fine. Did 40 miles a week 😳."
Others sounded excited to give this hack a go. "Tell me how I had to go to the trainer EVERY DAY before and after practice to ice my shins and no one gave me this information," another said.
But can duck walk exercises actually prevent shin splints? Here's what you need to know.
What are shin splints?
In case you’re not familiar with the term, “shin splints” refer to pain along the inner edge of the shinbone (aka the tibia), according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Shin splints usually result from physical activity and are typically linked with running.
Shin splints tend to develop when the muscle and bone tissue in the leg become overworked by repetitive activity or sudden changes in physical activity, such as increasing the number of days you work out or the length of time you exercise. (FWIW: The AAOS also says that you can get shin splints if you have flat feet, “abnormally rigid” arches, or exercise with improper or worn-out footwear — so make sure you’re wearing the best running shoes for shin splints.)
Can duck walk exercises prevent shin splints?
While you might be tempted to add five minutes of duck walks to your pre-run warm-up, experts are mixed on whether duck walks are safe — let alone effective. In theory, using duck walks to activate and strengthen the tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior (aka two of the muscles along your calf that help with flexion) could work, says Clint Soppe, M.D., orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and orthopedic consultant for the LA Galaxy.
But Chris Kolba, a physical therapist in sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says he would recommend against duck walks due to the risk of doing them improperly, especially since most people don't have the mobility or the form knowledge to duck walk like a pro. In fact, doing duck walks incorrectly can put you at increased risk of injury — so basically the exact opposite of what you wanted to achieve with these exercises. "I also worry about the knee joint and the meniscus being at risk in the extreme position of the duck walk, considering the poor form and compensations typically seen while people attempt this movement," adds Kolba.
What are other ways to prevent shin splints?
One of the best things you can doto prevent shin splints is to gradually increase your running instead of having big jumps in mileage, says Mark Slabaugh, M.D., a sport medicine physician and orthopedic surgeon at Mercy Medical Center. (Think: increasing your mileage by a few miles each week vs. tacking on an extra 10 miles all at once.)
If you regularly struggle with shin splints, it's a good idea to see a physical therapist, says Jason Womack, M.D., chief of the division of sports medicine at the Rutgers University Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "Dedicated physical therapy is an effective way to strengthen the anterior tibialis in addition to the other muscles that assist in moving the foot and ankle," he says. That extra strength is key in preventing shin splints because stronger muscles increase your capacity for training (aka your ability to run farther, pain-free). Resistance bands can be particularly effective for isolating and strengthening individual ankle muscles, adds Dr. Womack.
Try this popular strengthening exercise: Sit on the ground with your legs extended. Loop a towel or resistance band around the sole of your left foot, with one hand holding each end of the towel or band. Flex your left toes back toward your shin, then point your toes toward the wall in front of you for one rep. Aim for 3 to 5 sets of 10 reps on each foot for maximum injury prevention.
Finally, decrease the frequency and intensity of your workouts until your shin splints heal, advises Dr. Soppe (although he admits “that’s usually the last thing people want to hear”). He also recommends doing a targeted ice massage on your shins after you exercise. Using a plastic baggie filled with ice or even an ice roller, apply pressure and run the ice up and down the inside and outside of your shins for five to 10 minutes.
If you've tried all that and you're still struggling, it's time to see a doctor, says Dr. Soppe. "You want to rule out a stress fracture at that point," he says.
So TL;DR: you might be tempted to try duck walk exercises, but proceed with caution (and under the guidance of a running coach or physical therapist). There are other ways to prevent shin splints besides jumping on this new TikTok trend.