Our glutes, hips and core tend to get all the attention in discussions of running injuries, but our calves are responsible for quite a lot of the effort that goes into running. 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.
Finnish scientists determined that the overall effort of the calf muscle is 25% higher than that of the quads.
AND THAT MY FRIENDS is why we often experience muscle cramps in our calf muscles first or why newer runners find them sore.
There are some key things we need to do correctly to prevent calf issues:
- Proper foot strike while running (no landing on your toes)
- Embracing the dynamic warm up to get blood flowing to the calves
- Utilizing the foam roller to release muscle tightness
- Doing some calf stretches (see below)
- Doing some calf strengthening exercises (see below)
Sore Calves From Running
Made up of two different muscles, (the gastrocnemius and the soleus) calves are our body’s natural shock absorbers. They handle eight times our body weight every time we land and push off, that’s some serious work for thousands of steps during a run.
Since our calf muscles are comprised 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 do their jobs:
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.
The calf muscles help 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 jumping power
The gastrocnemius contains mostly fast-twitch muscle fibers that help us with explosive moments like squat jumps, plyometrics, running speed, and uphill strength.
Calf Tightness from Running
As noted above, there are a number of things we can do to prevent calf tightness and first was understanding just how hard your calf muscles are working. Next is making sure that you’re not running up on your toes and as always, I like to ensure you understand WHY it’s so important not to ignore.
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 (obvious, right, but we need that reminder!), which means that when one piece 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. Yes that tricky little line of discomfort vs pain!
Calf Strain or Pain While Running
If you’re feeling sharp calf pain while running, it’s possible you’ve got a calf strain. Like many runner injuries from IT Band Syndrome to Shin splints, it’s avoidable if we don’t break the too much, too soon, too fast rule.
Signs of a calf strain:
- Mild ache in the calf
- Moderate pain walking
- Swelling (always a sign to STOP what you’re doing)
- Bruising or redness (bruising is far 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 more mild you might be back out there in a week.
Calf Strengthening Exercises for Runners
The calf muscles work during any type of ambulatory movement, including walking, running, and jumping. This makes them especially prone to a number of injuries, including:
You know how much I love mobility and strength for injury prevention, so it should come as no surprise that I’m going to include some exercises to incorporate before and after your runs.
You can easily perform all of these calf exercises at home, without the need for special equipment.
Seated Resistance Band
A great place to start is with a resistance band because you can control the intensity and improve range of motion all at once. While seated, loop the band around the ball of your foot and then slowly push forward. Especially great if you’re getting over a calf strain.
Starting with both feet flat on the ground, simply raise up on to your toes and lower back down. Even 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. Here 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. I used to do reps of this after my runs, so if you’re looking to get my legs, do this. HA!!
Eventually you can move to doing those on just one leg, which is ideal for continuing to work on our balance as runners.
Build up to single leg calf raises over several weeks with the following exercises:
- Seated calf raises. Sit in a chair with both feet on the ground. Lift the heels to full extension and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
- Double leg calf raises two to three times a week for three weeks. Repeat 10 times.
- Double up, single down calf raises. If you have the double leg down, but can’t quite get the reps for single leg, move on to lifting with both heels, lowering down on one leg. Repeat 10 times.
Another elementary school move, jumping rope is an excellent calf-strengthening move. Simply jump rope, starting with four rounds of 15 seconds, working your way up to one minute at a time.
No jump rope? No problem. Just pretend like you have a rope and mimic the movement. Try to land on your toes.
A round of jump squats will get your calf muscles ready for the run ahead. With feet shoulder distance 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 jump squats.
Calf Stretches for Runners
These are great exercises to do while you’re watching TV to wind down for the evening or while waiting for that pasta water to boil. They take just a few minutes and make a big impact.
Improve Calf Range of Motion
Here’s a quick test you can do to see if you’ve got a good range of motion, which is key for the proper push off.
- Stand barefoot facing a wall with the right foot about three inches away from the base of the wall. Take a step back with your left foot, keeping the knee bent.
- Bend at your ankle to touch your kneecap to the wall without lifting your heel off the ground. If you can do so without lifting your heel then you have good range of motion.
- Repeat on the other leg.
If you failed on either side, then regularly incorporate the exercises below until you can successfully perform the test.
Downward Facing Dog
This yoga move is super for tight calves. Start on hands and knees and raise your hips to the ceiling, straightening the legs and pushing the heels toward the ground. It’s ok if your feet are not flat on the ground. Pedal your feet one at a time for 30 seconds and then hold the position for 30 more.
Foam Rolling Your Calves
You’ve been warned! Foam rolling is killer on the calves, but one of those oh-so-good painful feelings. 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 butt off the ground and feel the burn as you roll the length of the calf. Perform 30 seconds per side.
- For better results I actually like the massage stick
- Or checkout this Swerve tool, which is a bit like what chiropractors use to dig in deeper
How do you incorporate calf strength and mobility into your running routine?
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