Complete guide to managing tight calves
It can happen suddenly or over a period of time and it can impact even the most seasoned of runners, either way, tight calves for runners can be incredibly frustrating…and painful.
Calf pain after an injury, such as a slip or fall resulting in a muscle strain, provides a clear time for when the problem started. But it is incredibly common for runners to complain of muscle tightness and pain with no history of trauma. Understanding the cause requires a bit of personal investigation.
Non-traumatic calf pain and usually follows a fairly predictable pattern. At some point during the run, the calf begins to feel tight, as you continue the run the level of muscle tightness increases, and in some cases, pain. After you stop running the pain will often subside but the muscle will continue to feel firm and a bit tender. You may also experience a “pulling sensation” when you flex your foot or point the toes.
Let’s have a look at what causes calf tightness when running and what you can do to treat them and prevent it from happening again.
What are the main causes of tight calves when running?
The number one causes of tight calves is a sudden increase in the duration or intensity of your running. It takes an average of 16 training sessions (3 weeks approx.) for muscle adaption to occur during the hypertrophic phase of training.
A sudden increase in training intensity or duration without the correct build-up means that the body is unable to adapt to the demands of training. As a result, the mechanics of the foot will become altered as the muscles become fatigued altering your gait pattern. This will overload certain muscles causing pain and tightness.
Common occurrences of this are;
- Being new to running or returning to running after an injury or long period of rest.
- Introducing hill running or speed work.
- Upping your weekly mileage or the number of runs.
- Introducing gym sessions or completing gym sessions on the same day as running.
- Returning from an injury.
- Old or incorrect footwear.
Let’s explore these in a bit more detail to better understand how they can cause tight claves when running and what you can do to prevent this from happening.
New to running or returning.
It is essential to follow a structured training program no matter what level you are at. This ensures consistency in your training and will minimise the risk of injury.
If you are taking up running for the first time it can be slightly daunting and the temptation is to pull on some trainers and just start running, letting your body tell you when to stop.
Keep a logbook. It is important to plan your runs, where you are going, how long and how fast that way you can progress and/or regress the run. If you don’t measure it then it is hard to identify the areas that need to change. You can download a template here in a word document or write in a notebook.
Running Log Book PDF
Running Log Book Word Document
Training partner. This is a great way to motivate yourself to go running but make sure that you are both running to your pace and capabilities. The temptation will be to match your running partner like for like, but in doing so you will quickly become fatigued and the focus will be on trying to finish the run and it should be on improving your strength and fitness. Plan your run based on your abilities, if your partner needs more of a challenge then ask them to run ahead and double back, don’t try and push yourself.
These principles also apply to someone who is returning after a period of rest or an injury. You will most likely have a base level of strength and fitness but time away from training will have led to a period of deconditioning and in the case of an injury, you will have muscle imbalances. You will need to work on these strength imbalances in order to reduce the risk of further injuries by following a strengthening program.
Endurance sport, such as running, can create muscle imbalances or accentuate ones you already have. For that reason, It is important that everyone follow a robust and structured strength program. If you have weak calves, for example, the altered biomechanics puts extra stress through the Achilles tendon and can result in tendon strains and plantar fasciitis. Weak calves can also contribute to shin splints.
We have created a free 10-week training program that you can access here.
Increased training intensity.
Hill running and sprint training are great way to improve your running fitness. These are normally done in interval sessions and involve short bursts of speed followed by a steady-state jog, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Running at a faster pace or on an inclined gradient causes you to run on the balls of your feet (forefoot running pattern). This puts a larger demand on the calf muscles when compared to heel strike running and if they are not strong enough, they will become quickly fatigued.
In heel strike running you land on your heel and your weight is transferred through the midfoot and finally pushing off with the toes, as shown in the illustration below.
When forefoot running you will land on the balls of the feet and then immediately push off. This means you lose two of the three stages of the gait pattern and with it the momentum and power that is generated.
Appropriate strengthening of the calf muscles will help prevent fatiguing and reduce the risk of injury. In addition to this, you should also carefully plan any sprint or hill sessions, you are always better doing too little and increasing your runs than doing too much and causing an injury.
If you run regularly or find yourself being bitten by the “running bug”, you will naturally increase how long you run for or how often you run as your fitness increases. This is great when it is done in a controlled and gradual way. Additionally, you will become accustomed to running on tired and heavy legs and in most cases, you will start to view DOMS as an indication that you have been working hard. But there is a cumulative effect of increasing the miles that you do and you may not notice how fatigued your muscles are. Starting a run fatigued can result in injury if not managed correctly and this is when you can experience calf tightness when running.
You need to ensure that you provide yourself with adequate rest periods between long runs or hard training sessions to ensure that the muscles have adequate time to repair and recover. This does not mean that you do nothing, just make sure that you have a light session or active recoveries such as yoga, swimming or the bike to help the muscles recover.
Balanced training is important and by balanced we mean mixing up the type of training that you do. Specific cross-training has shown to improve running times and reduce injury rates in 5Km runners and that repeating the same exercise without variation can be detrimental.
However, introducing a new form of training to your routine should be structured to avoid overloading. If gym training is relatively new to you or you have started running on the same day, or the day after, your muscles will become fatigued. Remembering that it takes, on average, three weeks for muscle tissue adaptation to occur, you should start at a manageable level and provide yourself adequate recovery periods in between sessions.
Start by introducing one cross-training session into your week, allowing for the two days that follow to be lighter runs. Equally to maximise the benefits from the cross-session, allow for 2 days lighter runs before a heavy session. After establishing a baseline you can then start to increase your training load.
You can download a complete training program here.
If you are returning from an injury then you will be deconditioned and most likely have some muscle strength imbalances from the body’s adaptive biomechanics. Research shows that even after two weeks of rest from running can result in a decrease in heart and lung function as well as strength degreases.
Muscle imbalances occur when you change the way you walk or move to avoid something painful, think of walking with a limp as an example. In doing so other muscles and areas of the body will increase the load that they take to offset from the painful limb. This results in some muscle groups becoming stronger and others weaker. More importantly, is what also happening in the brain as the movement patterns start to become your new “normal” the more they are repeated, so when returning from an injury you will need to balance the strength deficit and retrain the neuromuscular movement patterns.
After a lower limb injury, you may experience tight calves when running in one leg or both and here are the reasons why;
Injured leg. Following an injury, to the calf such as a strain or a tear, the muscle will be weaker resulting in the muscle fatiguing quicker than the opposite leg. Additionally, any tissue repair to the muscle will have created scar tissue, similar to a cut on the skin, which becomes slightly less elastic than the surrounding muscle fibres. Over time the collagen fibres in the muscle will realign but it can be helped through massage and rehabilitation exercises.
Non injured leg. Tight calf muscles in the non-injured leg are incredibly common as is a result of the increased demands as it compensates for the injured leg. The muscles can become overused, tight and painful if not managed. Initially, they will be able to cope and will naturally become slightly stronger, however as there will be little or no rest for the muscles they will soon fatigue. Initially, they will become tight when you rest then develop into a painful calf.
Download your calf strain program that will help you get back into running.
Calf tightness when running can be caused by your footwear and is often an area that is overlooked. New shoes, old shoes or transitioning to different levels of support, all of these will have an impact on the mechanics of the foot and ankle, and increase the loading through the calf.
Evidence suggests that you should change your footwear every 300-500 miles. If you are someone who runs 20 miles a week or more you should look at changing them every 6 months.
It’s also very common for people transitioning to a trainer with minimal cushioning to experience tight calves. Minimal and barefoot trainers involve landing on the ball of the foot. This forefoot running style loads the calf muscles and Achilles tendon more than heel strike running in cushioned shoes. It is important to note that it is important to have your gait analysed as everyone has an optimal running style.
Calf tightness can also be an indication of some underlying medical conditions. If you have any concerns we always advocate getting assessed by a medical professional. Other causes that may need further investigation;
- peripheral vascular disease (PVD) or peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- muscle tear or tendonitis injuries
- limited range of motion in your ankle
- dietary imbalances
- medication side effects
- poor circulation
How to treat tight claves when running.
Tight calf muscles during or after running are very common in runners no matter what level you are at. As we have explored earlier, these are a natural response when there is an increased demand on the muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus).
The most common symptoms that are described are;
- The muscles feeling firm
- Tender to touch
- A “pulling sensation” when you flex your foot or point the toes.
Even the most experienced runners will be able to recall a time they have been on the side of a hill trail trying to elevate tight calves. In fact, running uphill is one of the main contributing factors.
There are several ways you can help alleviate tight calves when running and it is worth implementing the method that works for you into your daily routine.
PNF stretching (Hold relax)
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) also known as hold relax, is a great way to alleviate tight calves. It involved contracting the muscle for a short period then relaxing it for a better stretch. How this works is that PNF stretching effectively tricks the body into overriding its flexibility limitations thereby allowing you to achieve a greater range when compared to ordinary static stretch. Additionally, there are more benefits in the mobility element of the stretch as the body is relaxing into the movement. Unlike a static stretch where the muscles are resisting the movement.
How You Perform A PNF Calf Stretch:
- Lie on your back with your legs outstretched preferably on a hard surface.
- Bend one knee keeping your foot firmly planted on the floor.
- Lift your other leg into the air keeping it straight
- Wrap a towel or a strong resistance band over the foot keeping hold of both ends.
- Pull your foot towards you feeling the stretch in your calf and hold for about 5 seconds.
- Now Push against the resistance for 15 seconds.
- As you relax and breathe out, pull the foot towards you feeling the stretch into the calf.
Repeat this six times, each time you should feel an increase in the stretch.
Think about the terrain
Hill running puts a higher demand on the calf muscles when compared to running on the flat. This is because running uphill forces you into a forefoot strike pattern as well as the ankle working through a larger range. Try focusing on your glutes as you run uphill. Using them to propel you forward. By mentally focusing on a muscle group through a movement you can focus on the activation of the muscle.
Another way to release the pressure on the calf is to let your heel drop occasionally to make contact with the ground. On the steep inclines, try power hiking. This will take you into a more natural gait pattern and it will not compromise on your overall pace.
Dehydration can lead to tight muscles. If you have tight calves or are prone to them after running, then being a couple of litres low in fluids means you are at risk of an injury. Stay hydrated through the day by drinking little and often. After a run, a rough calculation to follow is to drink 125% of lost body weight over a 4-6hr period.
Example. You are 100kg, after a run, I weigh 98kg. That 1kg roughly translates to 2L of water. You should aim to drink 2.4L of water.
Add an electrolyte drink tablet or a pinch of salt and sugar to maintain sodium, magnesium and potassium levels.
Make sure you have the right footwear for your mechanics and the running you are doing. It is worth trying different styles if possible or having your mechanics assessed at a running shop or with a medical professional. Typically running shoes fall into these categories;
Minimalist – little or no cushioning on the shoe. Used by more experienced runners or those that have a forefoot strike in their running gait.
Neutral – These shoes have a padded sole but have little or no arch support in the insole.
Cushioned – These trainers have a larger drop ratio from the heel to the toe when it comes to how thick the sole is. Mainly for heel strike runners, the new variations come with a more curved appearance to help facilitate the movements of the foot and ankle.
Supportive – these shoes come with high arch support on the insole as well as a firmer midsole helping the shoe to retain the arch support. These are more beneficial to runners with high arches or prone to overpronation.
Your recovery is possibly the most important part of your training routine as it allows your body to repair and recharge. A good recovery routine after running will enable you to train harder and more consistently.
As the graph illustrates too little rest time will be detrimental to the progress of your training.
If you are pushing yourself during training, icing certain muscles (for example, the calves) immediately after running will reduce DOMS and muscle tightness. Icing will also improve the efficiency of the muscles and how they work.
Benefits of ice on tight calves after running;
- Cooling the muscles reduces the energy demands on the body meaning that your recovery becomes more efficient and faster.
- The cold causes the blood vessels in the muscles to contract and become smaller increasing the blood pressure through that area essentially acting a bit like a power hose.
- Anti-inflammatory. Managing the excess fluid into the muscles due to damage to the fibres will prevent the muscles from seizing up and feeling hard. By minimising inflammation it is also one less thing the body needs to work on meaning that energy can be used elsewhere and more effectively.
- Ice helps to dampen the stimulation of the nerves by slowing the chemicals that send the signals to the brain. This will reduce pain, but also reduce the bodies pain response such as swelling to the area.
- Cell regeneration & improvements. Repeated use of ice improves how well the cells in the muscles work meaning that you will not only perform better but your recovery times will improve.
Heat. If you experience tight calves after running then you want to use heat. This will help to relax the muscle, increase blood flow to the area and help to increase the elastic properties on the muscle fibres. You want to use radiating heat like a hot bath or a heat pack. Avoid lotions and creams as they are just chemical irritations to the skin.
Benefits of heat on tight calves when running;
- Increase blood flow = more oxygen = faster recovery from exercise
- Relax muscles and reduce spasms
- Increase in cell metabolism
- Reduce pain in stiff and arthritic joints.
- Increase muscle and joint elasticity.
- Improve in capillary permeability
- Increase in oxygen and nutrients into the area to promote tissue healing
- Pain relief by acting on nerve receptors.
Compression for tight calves.
Compression socks and sleeves support the calf muscle and are good for improving blood circulation. These can be worn whilst you are running as well as after.