If you have suffered a moderate or severe calf strain, you will know that running with a calf strain is not possible. The pain that comes with an acute and more severe (Grade 2 or 3) calf strain will make it hard to walk, let alone run!
However for the many runners who suffer from less severe calf strains (Grade 1), it’s often less clear as to whether or not you can run through a calf strain. So, how do you know if you can continue to run with a calf strain?
Do not run if you have a calf strain. You must give the calf muscle time to heal properly. When you can hop on the injured leg with no pain, you can begin to returning to running slowly. Running too soon after a calf strain increases the potential for further damage to the injured muscle tissue.
Your calf strain will recover faster if you take a rest from running and focus on physical therapy treatment and exercises.
Once you are able to walk pain free, have full range of movement at the ankle joint, and can hop pain free on the affected leg, you can start running gently.
Of course, if you’re in any doubt about running with a calf strain, please do see a physical therapist for treatment and injury advice. This article is meant for your information and doesn’t replace proper medical care.
Running with a Calf Strain
The two main calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) make up the bulk of the musculature in the rear compartment of the lower leg. They are primarily responsible for plantar flexion of the ankle, although gastrocnemius can also contribute to knee flexion.
If you’re not sure whether your calf strain is mild or more severe, check out this article I shared previously which will help you to understand the severity of muscle strains and tears. Muscle strains and tears are graded on a scale from 1-3.
If your calf strain is mild (Grade 1), which may feel more like calf pain after running, you have rested the injury to the point that you are able to hop on the injured leg without pain, and have full range of movement, I’d suggest starting with a gentle return to running plan.
Here’s an example of a simple plan you can follow to ease your leg injured calf back into running.
To begin with, as you return to running, keep all of your running at a slow pace, on flat, predictable surfaces. Faster running and uphill or downhill running will place more strain on your calf muscles. This added strain will be fine eventually, and is actually an important part of your recovery process, but only when your calves are ready for it!
Alongside your return to running programme plan, be sure to follow a physical therapy programme designed to progressively strength your calf muscles and address any muscle imbalances or flaws in running technique that may have caused the injury in the first place.
Best Treatment & Exercises for a Calf Strain
If you have a history of repeated calf strains, I’m sure you’ll find my 12 week calf strengthening programme for runners really helpful.
Below is a short video from physical therapists Bob and Brad who will walk you through what should (and shouldn’t) do to treat a calf strain at home.
Should you stretch a calf strain?
No! It may seem counter-intuitive, but for the first 7-10 days after a calf strain you must not stretch the calf muscles.
Don’t forget – your injured calf muscle fibres are trying to heal and effectively “knit together” during this important phase, and if you stretch to the point of pain, you’ll basically pulling them apart once again. This will do more damage, slow your calf strain recovery, and prolong your healing time.
Instead, you can actually offload the injured calf muscles through using temporary heel raises in your shoes, or even using crutches to minimise weight bearing all together.
After the first few days of the calf strain, you should begin some gentle cross-friction massage of the injured tissue to help promote proper healing of the injured tissue and breakdown scar tissue that will be forming. You can do so with your fingers (as per the video above), or feel free to gently use a foam roller using techniques in the video below:
Calf Stretches & Strength Exercises
After approximately 10 days, by which time you can hopefully walk pain free, you can begin some gentle stretching and eccentric calf strength exercises.
If you are still in pain, however, be sure to delay this next phase. If you are in doubt, please ask your physical therapist.
Here’s a series of gentle calf stretches you can use to help your calf strain recovery.
Along side the stretches, it’s important for you to also begin doing regular calf strength exercises to rebuild strength in the injured calf. The best way to do this is with eccentric heel raises off a step, demonstrated in this video:
Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 single leg eccentric calf raises, 5 times per week.
Although the calf region is where the injury has occurred, I always make sure that runners work on their hip mobility, glutes activation and core strength during this rehab period. After all, in some runners, it’s not unusual for muscle imbalances around their hips to be the root cause of their calf strain.
Here’s a great example of a glute workout I will also get injured runners to perform:
Finally, before you’re ready to begin running once again, it’s important prepare the recovering calf muscles for the dynamic loading that comes with running. I like to use a skipping rope as a gentle form of plyometrics to test the injured calf, and build running specific tolerance to dynamic loading.
Less is more when it comes to using plyometric training for rehabilitating an injured calf muscle, so aim for just 5 sets of 20 seconds, every day, as you prepare to return to running.
When you are able to hop on the injured leg for 5 sets of 10 seconds, you will be ready to begin a structured return to running plan. Structure is important here, to avoid the temptation to do too much, too soon!
Final Thoughts on Running with a Calf Strain
If you have suffered a calf strain, hopefully you can now see the importance of resting your leg and not trying to run through the pain and discomfort. It’s much better to take a rest from running for a shorter period immediately, than to try and tun through a calf strain and inevitably make the injury worse, requiring you to take a longer and wholly avoidable longer break from running.
Give the exercises above a try, and if you’re in any doubt please speak to your physical therapist.