Calf tightness when running is a problem I come across a lot, in varying degrees. For some people, the calf muscles simply feel a bit tight the day after a long or hard run. For others, the tension affects them when running and can be so severe that the aching pain causes them to stop. But what causes it when there has been no previous injury?
Tight calf muscles tends 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
Lets start at the beginning.
Some people are just naturally less flexible than others. Especially those that have been relatively sedentary up until they start running. But the good news is that a lack of flexibility can be addressed with a comprehensive stretching program. Now, this doesn’t mean stretching before and after running. This means stretching at least 3 times a day, if not more, to really see an increase in flexibility. So, if you’re new to running and suffering with tight calf muscles, this is your first course of action. Stretch, stretch, stretch!
If your calves feel like they cramp up when running, but are then fine after, it could be fatigue that’s causing your problem. Just like when you see football matches go into extra time and all the players get cramp in their hamstrings because they are not used to that amount of stress. The same can be said for the calf muscles. 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.
If you haven’t had a gait analysis – get one done! If you don’t know what this is, check out my page on gait analysis! It will basically ensure that you are wearing the right running shoes for your foot type. The most common problem in runners is overpronation. Tight calf muscles and overpronation often go hand in hand, so make sure you get this checked and corrected if necessary.
Also consider your day-to-day footwear choices. Wearing high heels on a regular basis can actually shorten the calf muscles too.
Some more newbie 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 with a pulse raiser that doesn’t stress the calf muscles – such as cycling or stepping. You can also stretch your calf muscles before running, although research indicates that static stretching before exercise is not effective at reducing injury rates. But it’s really down to personal preference and I still stretch my calf and glute muscles before running as I know these are my problem areas! Do make sure you finish your run with a walk for 5 minutes and then 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 your particular case, but a really common pattern to look out for is tight hip flexors, leading to weak or mis-firing glutes. This results in a lack of hip extension when running and a bigger reliance on the calf muscles for propulsion. Remember, we’re like one big chain – so where the pain is isn’t necessarily where the problem is! A sports injury therapist 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. We just run however feels natural to us. However, your running form could play a big part in your calf muscle tightness and pain.
I personally suffered with exactly this problem. Stretching my calf muscles regularly really helped, but it didn’t cure the problem. But what I have since found to work, is changing the way that I run.
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 cushioned shoes, 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.
Whilst I didn’t go the whole hog and start running barefoot, I have adapted the way that I run to land more on my mid and forefoot than on my heel….and hey presto! No calf pain or tightness!
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! Try to imagine landing with the foot flat on the ground. In the majority of people this results in the impact being on the midfoot and then the heel. Also bear in mind that this is different for your body and so as with anything new, you need to build up slowly. Again you may experience some increased calf aching initially.