These last few months of lockdown have meant a lot more of us are out pounding the pavement. That’s great – but it also means that a lot more of us are experiencing calf pain when running.
Pain or tightness in the calves can affect any runner, from novices to seasoned athletes.
It can strike when you least expect it, and for a number of different reasons.
What causes calf pain?
Unfortunately, many runners tend to ‘run through the pain’. This is NOT advisable!
With calf pain you need to listen to your body, attempting to push through the pain could be the difference of a few weeks correcting a problem and 6+ months of recovery, rehab, strength & conditioning and fitness before running again.
It is essential to have the right tools in your tool kit;
- A robust strength and running program. Access three free programs here.
- The right preparation and recovery plan.
- Correct footwear.
- Good diet – this includes what you drink and when.
Heat will be your best friend, and we are not talking about creams or lotions, they are a chemical irritation on the skin that gives the sensation of warmth. We are talking about radiating heat that will stimulate blood flow to the muscle, increase oxygen and nutrients into the area and prepare the muscles for running. Find out how the recovery cuff can help you prepare for your run.
If you return from a run or need to cut it short because of pain, you want to think about getting ice and compression onto the area. Compression will reduce any further tissue damage through swelling and reduce the pain that you are experiencing. There is more about the benefits of ice and how it can help with your recovery here.
Causes of calf pain
Poor running biomechanics
This is the number one cause of calf pain. You may be running in a way that causes your foot to pronate excessively, which will then add stress to your soleus and tibia. If this isn’t corrected in time, it can lead to pain and injury.
Overloading your calf muscle by running too much, too soon (or just too fast!) can cause a strain or even a tear in the muscle fibres. If the pain doesn’t improve with rest, you’ll need some kind of rehabilitation programme to treat it.
Inappropriate strength and conditioning
New runners are the most vulnerable to calf pain – especially if your lifestyle is usually somewhat sedentary. A lack of general conditioning and muscle strength in your calf muscles can predispose you to injury.
Wearing the wrong shoes for the distance you’re running, the terrain and your unique biomechanics puts you at a high risk of injury! Every runner needs the right pair of shoes to support their muscles, joints, and gait.
A proper assessment with a qualified physiotherapist is crucial: they’ll be able to identify the biomechanical factors that may be contributing to your pain.
Pinpointing the location of the pain can help you figure out possible causes.
How your calf works
The calf is made up of two main muscles, your gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Both of these muscles control the movement of your ankle. Your gastrocnemius is also involved with the movement of your knee. There are lots of other smaller muscles, nerves, and joints that can contribute to pain, but these two are most common.
Running can put stress on the gastrocnemius and soleus for different reasons. Treating your pain begins by differentiating which muscle is causing the problem.
This muscle is at the highest risk of strain because it crosses your knee and ankle joint. It also has a high density of type two fast-twitch muscle fibres. This makes it prone to stretching or contracting too far or too fast – like the crack of a whip.
The soleus crosses your ankle and is largely comprised of type one slow-twitch muscle fibres. Strains to the soleus can result in tightness, and stiffness, which generally feel worse with walking or jogging.
Brukner P, Khan K. Clinical sports medicine. Revised 2nd ed. Australia: McGraw-Hill; 2002.
Bryan Dixon J. (2009) Gastrocnemius vs. soleus strain: how to differentiate and deal with calf muscle injuries. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine volume 2, pages74–77
Drez, D. (1994). Orthopaedic sports medicine: principles and practice. J. C. DeLee, & C. L. Stanitski (Eds.). Saunders.
This article is to help improve your understanding and should not be used in replacement of advice from your medical practitioner. Always seek medical professional advice for any injuries.