Sore Calf Muscles? The Exercises You Need to be Doing to Prevent Injury
Whether you have just started running in the last month or have been a runner for life, there are some muscles that can tighten up and cause us so much pain with every step that we wonder whether we should even keep running or shut it down and rest.
One of the major ones is your calf muscles.
Running is not exactly easy without our calf muscles working properly.
Once you have a tight calf muscle with a cramp-like feeling with every step, it becomes almost impossible to run without stopping to stretch every few minutes trying to loosen them.
Not exactly ideal for any runner.
It get’s worse:
Once you have very tight calf muscles, even walking becomes painful. Now it is affecting your daily life as well as your running.
Is there anything that can be done to relax it and prevent it from happening again?
If your calf-strength limits your running, you will try anything to get the muscle relief you desire, but there is a problem with finding the best calf strengthening exercises:
It seems like everyone has a different opinion about how to handle a tight calf from running, so how do you know who to trust?
Today, we are going to examine why your calf muscles get tight, how you can build a stronger lower body (calf, achilles and ankles) to help keep calf pain away, and how to stop getting injured because of your calf weakness.
So start doing the right exercises, and give your calves the support they deserve.
What are the Calf Muscles?
The calf actually consists of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The gastrocnemius has two “heads” which make up the meatier upper part of the calf, while the soleus is the more slender lower part of the muscle.
Sore Calf Muscles from Running? Here’s Why (it’s not what you think!)
The misconception about the role of the calves during the running stride is that they assist in propelling the body forward at toe off, much like a traditional calf raise.
However, recent research and understanding of running mechanics shows this isn’t the case.
This is interesting:
The calf is most active as the foot contacts the ground and begins to generate hip extension to propel ourselves forward, not when you push off the ground.
This realization totally flips our treatment approach to calf injuries on its head.
After all, haven’t you been told after a calf injury to do calf raises and strengthening in this exact movement?
But, if the calf isn’t activated in this way during the running stride, how is it helpful?
Rather than performing calf raises to improve absolute strength, we need to look at how we can reduce the load on the gastrocnemius as the foot contacts the ground.
This is accomplished by improving running form.
Specifically, ensuring that you generate proper hip extension from the hamstrings and glutes so the leg passes under the body in a bent position, which takes pressure off the gastrocnemius.
How to Strengthen Calf Muscles to Prevent Injury
Since we now know that the gastrocnemius and soleus are not primarily activated or used at toe off, generic calf raises are not going to strengthen your calves for the specific demands of running.
Instead, we need to look at preventing calf injuries in two contexts:
First, strengthening the hips and glutes to ensure that you generate enough power to prevent the leg from being straight as it passes underneath the body.
Second, strengthening the calf muscles as they are used during running – when the knee is slightly bent and with pressure applied downwards (just like the exact moment your foot hits the ground and begins to drive back)
If you suffer from frequent calf strains, here is a series of strengthening exercises I recommend:
Theraband drive back x 20-25 with each leg
With your foot or heel attached to a cable machine, stand facing the structure that the cable is attached to.
Balance on one foot (it’s ok to hold onto another object for balance) and bring your leg slightly in front of you. Drive backwards with your foot in the band.
Focus on generating the movement from your glutes and hamstrings. Slowly bring the leg back up and repeat.
Single leg glute bridge (use stability ball for added difficulty) x 15-20 with each leg
Lie flat on your back with one leg bent, foot flat on the ground (or a stability ball), and the other leg straight up in the air, keeping a straight line all the way from your hips to your toes.
Slowly lift your pelvis off the ground by contracting your glutes and core while keeping your shoulder blades flat on the ground.
Donkey kicks with theraband x 15-20 with each leg
Start on all fours.
Insert a theraband so one end is wrapped around your knee and the other the bottom of your foot.
Extend your leg back and up, focusing on contracting with your glutes.
Straight leg bounds x 100 meters
Run forward by keeping your legs straight and driving through the ground with your hips and glutes.
Begin by running 50 meters. Progress until you’re running 100 meters.
Lunges – Work your way up to 15 repetitions each leg
Focus on keeping your core muscles tight through the movement.
Don’t let your knee bend past the tip of your toes.
Advanced runners can perform this holding a medicine ball and twisting when they bring their leg out for added difficulty.
Work your way up to 15 repetitions each leg.
How to Prevent Achilles Injuries
The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest tendon in your body, connecting your calf muscles to the back of your heel.
The role of the Achilles and ankle complex: why you keep getting injured
The key power generator at push off is the ankle joint and Achilles tendon, not the quads, which is a common misconception.
If we observe the ankle joint during a typical stride, we can see clearly that it goes through an extensive range of motion, which helps the ankle joint and the connected ligaments and muscles, to act as a spring to generate power.
Virtually all of the force generated when you “toe off” the ground during running is transmitted by the Achilles, and this force can be as much as three times your body weight.
The faster you run, the more strain you put on the Achilles tendon.
Therefore, the primary cause of Achilles tendon injuries is related to excessive stress being transmitted through the tendon.
This can be made worse by bad running form.
When the Achilles attempts to make up for a lack of power being generated from the hips and glutes while trying to run fast, weak tendon structure, and poor ankle range of motion.
How to strengthen and prevent injuries
The main objective in strengthening the Achilles tendon should improving the strength and composition of the collagen – the small fiber-like proteins that make up tendons.
When a tendon is damaged, collagen fibers are ruptured. The body is able to lay down new fibers to replace the damaged ones, but it does so in a rather disorganized way.
The new collagen fibers look much like a mess of spaghetti when viewed on a microscope, in contrast to the smooth, aligned appearance that healthy tendon fibers have.
Therefore, exercises that can help strengthen the existing collagen and allow new collagen to form in a smooth, aligned manner are critical to maintaining Achilles tendon health.
The exercise of choice is the eccentric heel drop, which has an impressive research pedigree backing its use.
Also, you’ll want to improve your ankle range of motion and work on your hip, hamstring and glutes to ensure they are generating the proper power to take pressure off the Achilles tendon.
The same exercises outlined above are sufficient to improve hip, hamstring and glute strength, but here is how to perform the eccentric heel drop and ankle range of motion exercises.
Simple Achilles prevention exercise
Exercise 1: The straight-knee eccentric heel drop.
In this picture, the injured side is the left leg. Note that the right leg is used to return to the “up” position. Once you can perform this exercise pain-free, add resistance using weights in a backpack.
Exercise 2: The bent knee eccentric heel drop.
As with exercise 1, the opposite leg is used to return to the “up” position. This time, bend your leg at the knee and slowly lower yourself down. Add weight when you can do it pain free.
Why Do I Need to Do All These Exercises to Prevent Weak Calves?
Think prehab as opposed to rehab.
Adding strength training to your weekly training program could well reduce your risk of injury by 50%.
The problem most runners face is that they only include strength work after they get hurt.
It gets worse:
When they return to healthy training they sacrifice the strength work that got them healthy for adding more miles.
But consider this:
Neuromuscular fitness could be the secret to improving your pace, not adding more mileage.
Consider the routines and information we talked about today, and make running-specific strength training a part of your daily and weekly training routine.