Apart from medical conditions (such as sciatica) there are usually two main causes:
- Calf muscle is being overloaded
- The calf muscle is weak or lacks endurance
Common causes can be introducing hill or speed work, increasing weekly mileage and increasing training intensity. It’s also very common for people transitioning to barefoot running to have calf pain. Running barefoot often involves landing on the forefoot and this usually loads the calf muscles and achilles tendon more than running in shoes. Do you run predominantly on your toes? Another factor is exercise you do in addition to running – if you’ve started to introduce gym sessions and running on the same day, or the following day, the calf may already be somewhat fatigued before you start.
There is a cumulative effect to exercise that can be quite subtle. If you run regularly you might be quite accustomed to running on heavy tired legs. You can become unaware just how fatigued muscles are getting.
The first answer when you have been overloading your calf is often rest. The dreaded R-word! A few days rest, some stretching and a session or 2 with the foam roller will often work wonders. I would recommend this before you start thinking about addressing any calf weakness – adding more exercises to an already fatigued calf can add to the problem. Secondly, you may need to think about your training schedule. Are you doing too much with too little rest? Or are you organising your training incorrectly?Adding a rest day or reducing your mileage temporarily can help resolve symptoms, allowing you to progress again.
Assessing calf strength
The easiest way to do this is a single calf raise;
Stand on 1 leg with your finger tips on a wall/ table for balance (not to push up from).
Push up onto your toes and slowly down again
Do as many as you can (going right up, not just lifting your heel a bit!)
Count the repetitions and compared left and right side
You should be able to do the same amount left and right and it should feel as easy both sides. Clinically I like to see runners achieving 40+ reps on each leg roughly. Below 30 might suggest a lack of endurance. You may find this test causes your symptoms, in which case stop, don’t push through pain.
The single calf raise is very effective to strengthen the calf. Do as many as comfortable, rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat for 2-3 sets. Aim to work up to 3 sets of 25-30 reps. Do this 2 or 3 days a week on days that you aren’t running. The exercise can also be done on the edge of a stair to allow for greater range of movement by letting the heel drop below the level of the step.
Addressing calf tightness
Calf flexibility is also important and not to be overlooked. Gently stretch the calf dynamically prior to running using mini squats, lunges, wall presses etc. anything that stretches the calf a little in a comfortable, controlled way. After running or doing strength work use your static calf stretches and as mentioned previously, the foam roller can help to release tight calves (although it is painful to do!). No pain no gain? 😉