As runners, we know we have to focus on our glutes, hips and core to prevent common injuries, but our calves are responsible for a lot of effort as well when we run. Which is why many runners find themselves wondering how to release tight calves from running or how to strengthen their calves for more powerful running. The overall effort of the calf muscle is 25% higher than the quads. That is why we often experience muscle cramps or tightness in our calf muscles.
How to Prevent Calf Issues:
- Proper foot strike while running (midfoot landing, no landing on your toes)
- Pre-run dynamic warm up to get blood flowing to the calves
- Include foam rolling sessions regularly to release muscle tightness
- Doing some calf stretches, and full body stretches
- Doing some calf strengthening exercises
Sore Calves from Running
Calves are made up of two different muscles, (gastrocnemius and soleus) calves are our body’s natural shock absorbers. They handle eight times our body weight every time we land and push off, that is a lot of impact with thousands of steps during a run.
Since our calf muscles are made of smaller muscles than others in our legs, they tend to fatigue more quickly. In order to prevent injury and improve running performance, we need to keep them strong so they can support our proper running form with muscle strength.
Deceleration– When we have to slow down, stop, or turn suddenly during a run, our calves absorb up to 12 times our body weight as we make the change in pace or direction.
Knee stabilization– The calf muscles help to protect the knee joints when we jump in vertical and lateral movements.
The smaller soleus muscle keeps the tibia over the heel bone, preventing us from falling over with each step.
Vertical jump power– The gastrocnemius contains mostly fast-twitch muscle fibres that help us with explosive movements like squat jump, plyometric, running speed, and uphill strength.
Tight calf muscles can affect other areas of the body:
- Knee pain from pulling the knee out of alignment
- Achilles pain
- Hip or glute pain
Your entire leg is connected, which means that when one muscle area is off, other areas try to compensate or get pulled out of alignment and are then effected.
It’s also important to recognize when your tightness is actually something more; tightness versus pain. If you’re feeling sharp calf pain while running, it might be a calf strain.
Signs of a calf strain:
- Mild ache in the calf
- Moderate pain walking
- Bruising or redness (bruising is less common, but the redness is usually the heat of inflammation)
- Difficulty rising up on to your toes
If you do have a calf strain with swelling, it’s time to stop running until the swelling is gone and you don’t have any pain while walking. This could be up to 4-6 weeks, for something milder you might be back to running within a week.
Calf tightness can cause many injuries:
- Calf strains
- Achilles Tendonitis
- Ankle sprains
- Knee pain
- Plantar Fasciitis
Calf Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Injuries
- Seated Resistance Band
- A good exercise to start is with a resistance band so you can control the intensity and improve the range of motion all at once.
- While seated, loop the band around the ball of your foot and then slowly push forward.
- Calf Raises
- Starting with both feet flat on the ground, simply raise up on to your toes and lower back down. Performing 10 reps of this prior to a run is a good warm up.
- Once that feels easy, then you can take it to a stair. You place the ball of your feet on the stair and raise up on your toes, then lower down so your heels go below the step before raising back up.
- Eventually you can progress to doing that exercise on a single leg, which is ideal for continuing to work on our balance as runners.
- Seated Calf Raise
- Sit tall on a bench or chair with your feet flat on the ground holding two heavy dumbbells on top of your thighs.
- Keeping your core engaged, lift your heels off the ground as high as possible.
- Slowly lower your heels back down to the ground, and repeat.
- Farmer’s Walk on Toes.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Keeping your shoulders down and your core engaged, lift your heels so you’re standing on your toes.
- Without letting your heels touch the ground, walk forward on your toes for 2-3 sets of 10 reps or 30 seconds X 2.
- Jump Rope
- Jump rope is an excellent calf-strengthening move.
- Jump rope, starting with 4 reps of 30 seconds.
- Increase your way up to one minute at a time.
- If you don’t have a jump rope, just pretend you have a rope and mimic the movement. Try to land on your toes.
- Sumo Squat Jump
- With feet hip-width apart, and toes turned slightly outward, use arms to help propel your body upward as you squat down and jump up.
- Land softly and use the momentum to repeat the movement.
- Complete 2-3 sets of 10 squat jumps.
Calf Stretches for Runners
These are efficient stretching exercises to release the tightness of the calves.
- Downward Facing Dog
- Begin in a tabletop position with your hands planted on the ground beneath your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
- Pressing firmly into your palms, tuck your toes, lift your knees off the ground, and slowly extend your hips upward.
- Without locking your knees, carefully straighten your legs until your body creates a triangle shape with the ground.
- Remember to engage your core as you continue to lengthen your spine and lift your hips as high as possible.
- To deepen the stretch, bend one knee and then the other to peddle the feet.
- Peddle your feet one at a time for 30 seconds and then hold the position for 30 seconds more.
- Straight-Leg Calf Stretch Against Wall
- This is a good stretch to target your gastrocnemius and simultaneously improve ankle flexibility.
- Standing arm’s distance away from a wall, step one foot back and slightly bend your front knee.
- Lean forward to push your hands against the wall, and press your back heel down into the ground for a deep stretch. Make sure your leg is straight.
- Switch legs and repeat.
- To isolate the soleus, try a variation with your back leg slightly bent.
- Standing Wall Calf Stretch
- Another wall stretch variation, this hits your gastrocnemius and can also help relieve tension in your Achilles tendon. It also doubles as a good stretch for the plantar fascia.
- Standing in front of a wall, put one foot forward so your heel is on the ground and the ball of your foot is against the wall.
- Resting your hands on the wall, gently straighten your front leg and lean forward until you feel a deep stretch in your calf.
- Switch legs and repeat.
- Foam Rolling your Calves
- Sit on the floor with a foam roller and lift the right leg on top of the roller.
- Cross the left leg over so it is resting on top of the right
- Use your arms to lift your body off the ground and feel the stretch as you roll the length of the calf.
- Perform 30 seconds per side.
Strengthen, Stretch, Run Strong!