It’s quite common for runners who are making the change from a heel striking running style to forefoot running to feel a strong link between the new running technique style and calf pain. While this is widely accepted as “normal” and “par for the course” in early stages of running with this type of foot strike pattern, it really shouldn’t be if the transition in form is approached properly!
Why Does Forefoot Running Cause Calf Pain?
In the case of those moving to a forefoot or midfoot strike pattern, calf pain and tightness in the first few weeks of using this new running style is due to the changes in the loading demands on the calf complex and muscle groups of the lower leg.
Previously when heel-striking, much of the impact and loading was taken by the skeletal system, through the joints. Now however, with a forefoot or midfoot strike the muscles and tendons are positioned to better absorb the load, in turn offloading the joints.
From a biomechanical point of view, this works well as long as the muscles and tendons (calf muscles and achilles tendons in particular) are ready for the task! However, if there is a lack of strength, mobility and stability around the ankle, the muscles of the lower leg will tighten up and/or suffer an overuse injury such as a calf strain or achilles tendinopathy.
As well as strength, technique plays a massive role. If you are too far onto your forefoot (foot pointing down on contact), the calf will experience unnecessary loading. This is usually the case when overstriding and “reaching out” to forefoot strike.
To compound the situation, if you then keep foot pointing down (plantarflexed at the ankle) while the foot is in contact – as many new to forefoot/midfoot running do – the whole calf complex will be excessively loaded throughout the stance phase.
- I use the visualization of landing on the rear aspect of the ball of my foot rather than on my toes to help me get a comfortable midfoot strike.
- Another good cue is to see how close you can get your heel to touching down simultaneously with the forefoot – without actually loading the heel. This will feel like you hit the ground first with your forefoot, then almost immediately lightly kiss the ground with your heel.
The other element of technique to think about is where the foot lands rather than simply how. The muscles of the lower leg act as a shock absorber, when over-striding the shock which needs to be absorbed increased significantly. The increased braking force associated with an athlete over-striding (landing the foot too far ahead of the knee and centre of mass) becomes excessive load for the calf and achilles complex to deal with upon contact. If the calves are weak, or prone to injury. This could prove too much and prompt failure – injury.
How can I avoid calf pain?
There are a number of things you can do to manage calf pain during this transition period for your running technique and to avoid excess calf loading:
Running Technique Work
One simple running technique cue for you to consider:
- Focus on bringing the foot down to the ground under a slightly bent knee rather than feeling that you are reaching out forwards with the foot.
Follow A Progressive Technique Transition Program
Make sure you don’t do too much too soon, your calves won’t thank you for it! Forefoot running and calf pain can be a less of a issue when follow a progressive program designed to help you through the transitional phases of changing your running technique.