We’re sure that a lot of you are, or have been, experiencing some sort of calf pain or soreness in the last couple of months, especially if you’ve done a marathon or intense road race!
The two main muscles of the calf are the gastrocnemius and soleus, these muscles have to work super hard when running. They act as shock absorbers by taking the load of your body weight, then they help propel you forward with every stride. So it’s not surprising they get sore every now and again!
Here are some of the sensations you could be experiencing in your calf muscles:
Reduced ankle movement (especially pointing your foot up)
The majority of the time these symptoms are caused by the calf being over-worked, causing excessive damage to the muscle fibres. Of course there are other causes, so if you are concerned then we recommend seeing a sports injury therapist for treatment and long-term advice. We are able to provide this through our injury treatment sessions.
So what’s the cause?
Simplistically, it is the overloading, weakness, and fatigue of the calf muscles.
If you’re new to running or coming back after a break or injury then you’re at a higher risk of suffering from calf soreness/pain, as the muscles adapt to running.
One of the first things to look at is changes to your training routine or lifestyle. Have you increased your weekly mileage by more than 10% each week? Been skipping recovery days? Been on your feet or walking more than usual? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you’re putting your calves at risk of being overloaded.
You also need to be careful when adding speed work and hill sessions into your training. This needs to be done gradually and preferably not at the same time as increasing your mileage. You can speak to us about our personalised coaching packages if you need advice with this.
Muscle imbalances in your hips can also effect the calves. A thing we commonly see with runners are tight hip flexors which inhibit the glutes. If the glutes become weak and subsequently “mis-fire” then they are not effective at extending the hip whilst running. This leads to the calf working harder to propel you forwards. If your job involves sitting most of the time you probably have tight hip flexors, so you need to spend extra time stretching them or book in for some sports massage.
Your running technique can also contribute to your calves being overused, if you are a “heel striker” then this will put more load through them. It takes time to change your running style, so this should be done gradually to avoid other injuries, whilst your body is adapting. Forefoot and mid-foot striking results in lower impact force, which in the long run will help lighten the load on your calves.
Looking after your calves
If your calves are feeling really painful then the first thing to do is to rest and let them recover. To speed up recovery, try applying an ice pack to the area for 15 minutes 3 to 6 times a day. Sports massage from a qualified professional may also help.
Make sure you warm-up and cool-down for 5 minutes before and after your run, this helps prepare your muscles for exercise, and aids in the removal of metabolic waste.
Always stretch your calves after you run, hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 – 6 times to allow the muscles fibres to lengthen. If you find it hard to relax then try taking a deep breath in, then relax into the stretch as you breathe out.
Glute strength work is essential to make sure they are strong and firing properly, this will prevent your calves from being overused when running. Our post on posture and performance had some good glute exercises, such as the bridge and superman.
Check you have appropriate footwear when running, walking, or at work. You may want to have a gait analysis next time you buy a pair of trainers to make sure they’re suitable for you. Make sure that your everyday shoes give you plenty of support, it’s important to remember that whatever you’re doing in between your runs will affect your recovery.
Exercises and stretches for your calves
Here are some exercises and stretches to help keep your calves in a good condition. Ideally do these exercises on your days off from running once or twice a week, start off with 2 sets of 10 reps, gradually building up to 3 sets of 20 reps. I only recommend doing these exercises and stretches if you can do them pain-free.
Here’s a video showing how to do calf raises, eccentric heel drops, and calf step backs.
You don’t want to rely on your calves to propel you forward when running, this is primarily your glutes job. However, when everything fatigues at the end of a race, we generally lose our running form and rely on other areas to keep us going. This is why it’s good to do specific strength work for the calves.
Here’s a video showing four variations of stretches for the calf muscles (gastronemius and soleus).
Stretching is a great way to release tension in your muscles, however it needs to be done regularly. Research suggests that holding a stretch for 30 seconds is the most effective duration. Make sure your muscle are warmed up first, hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 3 to 4 times. If you can stretch on a daily basis then that is ideal, however the most important time is as soon as you’ve finished training or racing.