Tight calf muscles tend to be most common amongst relatively new runners. This gives us a few clues already. It can be linked to a number of problems which can affect those new to the sport:
- A lack of flexibility in general
- Fatigued calf muscles
- Inappropriate footwear
- Wearing high heels daily
- Running too much, too soon
- Inadequate warm-up / cool-down
- Muscle imbalances elsewhere
- Running form
Some people are just naturally less flexible than others. But the good news is that the lack of flexibility can be addressed with a comprehensive stretching program. This means stretching at least 3 times a day, if not more, to really see an increase in flexibility.
If your calves feel like they cramp up when running, but then they are fine after, it could be fatigue that’s causing the problem. The more you run the stronger your calves become, but in the meantime, try some strengthening exercises – single leg calf raises are great and require no equipment.
Gait analysis will basically ensure that you are wearing the right running shoes for your foot type. The most common problem in runners is over pronation. Tight calf muscles and over pronation often go hand in hand, so make sure you get this checked and corrected if necessary. Wearing high heels on a regular basis can actually shorten the calf muscles too.
Some training mistakes can also cause tight calf muscles. Running too much, too soon can do it as your muscles tighten up in response to the increased stress that they are not accustomed to. Also, ensure you warm-up before running such as cycling or stepping. Make sure you finish your run within 5 minutes and then go for a thorough stretching session, as this is where stretching really comes into its own to reduce post exercise soreness.
Muscle imbalances are responsible for so many running injuries and having tight calf muscles whilst running is no exception. Everyone is different and so it is hard to tell you what may be affecting in a particular case, but a common pattern is to look out for is tight hip-flexors, leading to weak or misfiring glutes. This results in a lack of hip extension when running and a bigger reliance on the calf muscles for propulsion. A sports physiotherapist should be able to assess you for muscle imbalances and determine what may be affecting you.
Running form is basically the way you run and it is something that we don’t tend to think about when running, especially when we first start out. However, your running form could play a big part in your calf muscle tightness and pain. Stretching calf muscles regularly helps. Barefoot running is increasing in popularity and its many advocates say that it reduces injury rates amongst runners and it promotes a more natural running pattern, which modern running shoes have altered.
In today’s ultra-technology world, most of us have evolved to run with a heel strike – that is the heel hits the ground first. But before running shoes, this would have been painful and so our predecessors ran with a more mid-foot strike. Running with a mid-foot strike alters the biomechanics of your running cycle, shortens your stride length and changes the loading on your calf muscles, as well as reducing the impact through the foot and lower leg. It is important however, to avoid landing on just the forefoot alone as this will increase the load on the calf muscles and Achilles. If you run entirely on your toes this could actually further increase calf tightness.
About Dr Chirag Patel
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