Calf Muscles in Runners: Injury and Care
There are several muscles in the front and back of the lower leg. The calf at the back of the leg comprises two main muscles: the gastrocnemius (which itself has two parts) and the soleus (which lies underneath the gastrocnemius).
Preventing Calf Problems
As with all the muscles we use for running, the calf muscles need some attention in order to keep them in tip-top condition. Here are some things you can do:
Some runners prefer to incorporate a warm-up during the start of their run by jogging slowly at first and then gradually picking up the pace as the muscles warm and lengthen. Other runners might want to actively stretch out their calf (and other) muscles before they actually begin to jog or run.
More vital is a warm-down or stretching routine after the run. Muscles which have become elongated during a run can tighten up after the run, so it is a good idea to stretch them out gently.
A good stretch for the gastrocnemius muscle is to place your hands against a wall, have one leg back and one leg forward, with your feet flat on the floor and your knees straight. The gastrocnemius of the back leg will be stretched. Hold the pose for about 30 seconds, but make sure you do not stretch to the point of pain.
A good stretch for the soleus muscle is to perform the above stretch and bend the knee of the back leg. This will additionally stretch out your achilles tendon.
Naturally most of us want to improve or maintain our current running performance, whether it be to run faster, longer, or simply just to keep running regularly. Sometimes, however, we might get a little too enthusiastic and overdo it, and this can lead to injury.
My own experience of a calf strain (torn calf muscle) resulted from running much too fast down a hill, thinking I was superwoman! The pain was sharp and stopped me in my tracks. The muscle took quite a few weeks to repair itself, but then I was back to running well. Try to be aware of your body when running, so that you can transcend yourself but not overtrain.
Cramping of the calf muscles is where the muscles contract and then stay contracted. This can come about if the muscles are overused, if the body is dehydrated and deficient in the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium. The minerals will help you rehydrate, in turn helping your muscles.
Certain products from specialist running shops can provide an easy and effective way to replenish lost minerals/electrolytes. See these two products in particular: Nuun Tablets and High 5 Zero.
Another way of reducing tightness in calf muscles is use of The Grid. From a position where you are seated on the floor you can roll your calves over the Grid with greater or lesser intensity. The Grid will help to tease out tight muscle fibres.
Treating a Calf Injury
If you are unlucky enough to sustain a calf injury you would do well to follow a few guidelines in sequence.
If you have injured your soleus muscle, you are more likely to experience an ache. If you have injured your gastrocnemius muscle you will experience a sharper pain.
You will need to rest if you have calf strain. If you continue to run you will not give the calf muscles a chance to repair themselves. Depending on the severity of the strain, the pain may not allow you to run anyway. In severe cases you may need a period of immobilisation. Rest assured, however, that your rehabilitation will start immediately. If you can walk, walking around will automatically help recovery. Aim to walk pain-free before you consider calf stretches. This can take 7 to 10 days.
It can be beneficial to ice the affected area for 20 minutes of every hour for the first 24 hours.
Compression can easily be achieved with compression socks or calf tights. Wear them at night for hours of recovery time. See our compression socks and calf guards here »
Once you can walk pain-free you can try some gentle stretches. Start with seated calf raises, then progress to standing calf raises. You can do the calf raises with or without equipment.
For a seated calf raise without equipment sit with your feet flat on the floor. Raise your heels so that you come on to the balls of your feet. Stay there a moment before you lower your heels.
For a standing calf raise without equipment, raise your heels again so that you come on to the balls of your feet. Stay there a moment before you lower your heels. Use a wall or chair for balance if need be.
A progression from this is to stand with the balls of your feet on the bottom stair of a flight of stairs. Raise your heels, putting your weight on to the balls of your feet. (It can be wise to hold on to a handrail for balance.) After a moment lower your heels to slightly below the edge of the bottom stair.
Make sure you do all the stretches without pain, so as not to set your recovery back. You can stretch too much too early after injury. The scar tissue is not as flexible and it can take a little while to break down. If you go back to running too quickly, the injury may reoccur. In the later stages of recovery you could see a sports massage therapist for deeper work on your calf.
Over time, when you have rested, when you can walk pain-free and you can stretch pain-free, you could try light jogging. Try for a few minutes with your first jog, taking time afterwards to assess how your calf muscles feel. If they feel fine, go out again the next day, or the day after, and go a little longer. In this way your rehabilitation will be sure and you will be enjoying your normal running again in no time.
Prevention is better than the cure, so look after yourself! However, if you become injured, be the master of your own recovery. Help is available from so many sources. Take heart, apply yourself, and you could well be running better than ever! If you need to see a practitioner, come and visit our stores, where you can get more advice, or book an appointment at the Run and Become Clinic.
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