Tips to Prevent Sore Calves After Running
If you’re currently struggling with calf pain caused by running, I hope the info I have to share in the article will help you treat your calf injury more effectively, and get you back to running as soon as possible.
In this article, I’ll be looking at:
- The various common causes for calf injuries in runners
- Differing levels of severity of calf muscle injuries, and how to tell which you have
- How to treat your calf pain, and strengthen your calves so that you prevent a calf pain in the future
To begin with, let’s take a look at some of the common reasons why the calf muscles become overloaded in distance runners, resulting in calf pain and injury.
Build Strength to Prevent Calf Pain >>
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What Causes Calf Pain After Running?
One of the more common injuries resulting in calf pain after running is a calf strain or a tear. The biggest of the calf muscles, Gastrocnemius to use its correct name, is the largest and most superficial of the muscles in the lower leg and is loaded repetitively and heavily during running sports.
With every stride we take when running, the calf gets loaded, firstly to absorb the shock of our body weight landing, then to help propel us forward into the next stride.
Now take into account that for every mile we run we take in the region of 1500 strides. Looking at it like this makes it easier to see that if there’s a weakness in the calf complex, or a fault elsewhere in the kinetic chain or running technique which leads to more stress being experienced by the calf complex, the potential for calf pain and injury is almost certainly increased.
Broadly speaking, the muscles of the calf have roles more related to creating stability and control of motion around the foot and ankle, rather than creating big, powerful movements. I’ve written elsewhere in this website about a common pattern I see in runners where poor hip function leads to ‘calf overload’:
Learn how tight hips cause calf issues >>
Another common pattern I see is where runners suffer calf injuries when trying to rush the process of adapting to forefoot running too quickly.
How to Prevent Calf Pain when Forefoot Running >>
Often a poor warm-up is cited as a reason why runners suffer calf pain and injury. Most of us appreciate the necessity for a thorough running warm-up, but of course we often learn the hard way!Dynamic Calf Warm-Up for Running
Let’s consider why, in the case of the calf complex particularly, a good warm us is important in avoiding injury: The calf runs down from its medial and lateral attachments above the knee and blends with the achilles tendon – which in turn attaches at the base of the heel.
The calf and the achilles tendon act as one dynamic structure during motion. As the calf complex is loaded, a portion of the load is taken by the elastic properties of the achilles tendon, sharing the load with the calf muscles. If the achilles tendon is not warmed up sufficiently, these elastic properties of the achilles tendon will not be displayed and more of the load will have to be taken by the calf.
It is also important to note that as we age, these elastic properties of the tendons in general diminish – thus accounting for the increased occurrence of calf strains in the more senior of our athletic population.
Grades of calf strain or calf tear:
Muscular strains and tears are classified according to their severity in terms of how many fibres have been disrupted or ruptured
Grade 1 Calf Strain:
This is the least severe of calf injuries. A small number of muscle fibres have been damaged within the muscle. Signs and symptoms of this type of less serious strain may not be noticed until cessation of the activity. Tightness, cramping feelings and slight soreness are common when the muscle is stretched.
Grade 2 Calf Tear:
This is sometimes referred to as a partial calf tear. A greater number of muscle fibres have been torn, however the muscle remains largely intact. More immediate localised calf pain is present during activity, especially walking and running. Often the area is sore to touch.
Grade 3 Calf Rupture:
Total rupture. All the muscle fibres have been torn, losing continuity throughout the muscle. This is a serious injury and highly disabling. The athlete will be unable to walk pain free. Often bruising will appear below the tear site and there may well be a palpable bulge where the calf muscle has recoiled upon itself.
Read Next >>
Can you run with a calf strain?
Calf Strain Treatment & Rehabilitation:
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.
Treatment of most calf injuries is initially much the same as that of any soft tissue injury. The Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (R.I.C.E) principal should be followed. Then a gradual return to exercise undertaken. Sports massage is also good once the initial acute phase has passed. In terms of timescales for rest, a good rule of thumb is 3 weeks for a grade 1 strain and 4-6 weeks for a grade 2 strain. A grade 3 tear will most likely require surgery followed by a twelve-week rehabilitation programme.
As with any injury, on the road to recovery, progressive and comprehensive exercise-based rehabilitation is key to avoiding recurrence or secondary injuries. These often occur through compensatory movements which may have become habitual during the injured period.
Build Strength to Prevent Calf Pain >>
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As with any injury, the rehabilitation phase is an ideal opportunity to target those areas we all ignore in our weekly training routine. The core muscles and glute muscles are a great place to turn focus to when you are restricted in terms of activity. The stronger these muscles can become, the more likely a successful outcome is to be reached both in terms of injury recovery and subsequent performance.
Particularly after an injury to the leg, the first step in the rehabilitation process is to correct any limp that may remain after the pain has gone. These limps become habitual both in running and in walking and can cause problems in areas such as the lower back.
Specific single-leg exercises are important to build the strength in the injured limb and take away the temptation to use the other leg to bear an uneven portion of the load. These exercises also enable the body to regain its sense of balance which will have been lost on the injured side during the injury period.
Once improvements have been made in single leg strength and balance, low-level plyometric exercises may be re-introduced as a precursor to running. Jumping, hopping and skipping are all useful to re-introduce the muscle to the dynamic loading needed for running.
Once successfully progressed through the multidirectional plyometric exercises, running may be re-introduced in short bursts. A sure way to re-injure the muscle is to do too much too soon at this stage. Running is to be approached with a methodical approach in terms of progressing from session to session. Keep a watchful eye on running technique – especially foot position on contact.
Begin with straight line runs with gradual acceleration and deceleration. Then slowly introduce changes of direction and more aggressive changes of pace.
How to Prevent Calf Pain After Running:
The following exercises will help you build strength and stability to prevent calf pain after running.
Single Leg Squat
Balancing on one leg, flex at the hip, knee and the ankle performing a mini squat keeping the knee aligned with the first two toes, then return to the standing position. Repeat this maintaining alignment of the knee.
Start standing with the heels hanging off a step, with your body weight supported on the balls of the feet. Slowly allow the heels to drop towards the ground, coming below the height of the toes, then rise up using the calves so that the heels come higher than the toes.
With one foot far in front of the other, and hands pushing on the wall, keep the rear leg straight and flex the front knee. Pushing the rear heel into the ground, a strong calf stretch should be felt in the rear leg.
Wobble Cushion Balance
Balancing in a single leg stance on any unstable surface. Begin with a reasonably stable surface, and progress by increasing time or decreasing stability.
Staying ‘light’ and landing on the forefoot, jumps are a great way of re-introducing the calf complex to more dynamic loading. Begin with a set of 10 jumps on the spot. Then progress to doing as many jumps between one spot and another for 20 seconds. Further progression entails adding multidirectional jumps in all planes of motion.
Following the same methodology as that used when progressing through the jumps program: perform these dynamic motions as hops – preventing the body from compensating through using the uninvolved leg.
Good luck with the recovery from your calf pain. I’m sure that with time spent working on these exercises and other similar rehab routines, you will get back to running without calf pain.
After a few runs I always get a massive ache down the inside of my left calf, running along my shin bone. Extremely painful to touch, and puts me out of running for at least a few weeks, and then simply repeat the process! No idea why it happens. I assume it’s that my left calf is weaker than my right. Any idea how to fix it?
You are describing shin splints. A very common injury. Ice the area and increase the mileage slowly.
I repeatedly suffer calf muscle injuries. I am trying to figure out why. I have noticed that when I walk the outside of my foot touches the ground first and also that my kneecaps will naturally point inwards when I squat. Would either of those be related to the calf inury? If so what exercises could I do to correct these habits?
I have been suffering from a repetitive calf injury for a number of years now and it is really getting me down ,just the thought of another triathlon season getting closer and not being able to complete any sort of regular running is a nightmare. I have been seen by a number of sports therapists and followed their plans with no joy and I have even managed to get an MRI scan on my calf that shows no sign of damage? I have stopped running for the last month and 3 times a week I have been performing squats, lunges and a series of other stretches and exercises to help loosen my gluteus up too. I have been doing calf raises on the stairs 3 times a day for the last 2 weeks and my calfs do feel a touch stronger. On quite a few occasions over the last years I have experienced a stabbing pain in the same spot during a run and again many times I have felt a tightening coming on and have had to pull up short and had to limp home which tends to last a few days. I have had a few periods of a couple of months rest with no running and it’s the same story on returning. I have a constant point top left of my left calf that feels like a knot that is sore when pressure is applied and hasn’t disappeared for over a year now. I am looking for advice from some body I can trust to help or the names of people that I can maybe speak to for help. Have you any ideas or can you help? I really feel I am running out of options and dream about being able to run pain free again. Thanks, Marc.
I had been a casual runner and duathlete for several years when I suffered a Grade 2 calf strain. I saw my primary care, had an MRI, and had this diagnosis given. I went through the recommended period of rest, 6 weeks, and then began some stretching and strengthening for a few weeks, before I started doing some walking with interspersed light jogging. I quickly re-injured it despite my attempts to be as gradual as possible. This cycle repeated for about a year and a half. I thought my running life was over. I changed to a new job and 2 of my new co-workers were triathletes, in my same age range, 35-45, and had suffered calf injuries in the past themselves. Both swore that massage therapy had been the key to their recovery. A few months ago, I located a therapist near my residence and it has been absolutely amazing. I run 10-15 miles per week now and just finished my first sprint distance duathlon. I still have some soreness, especially after the duathlon, but I go and see her and by the next day the difference is unbelievable. I do focus a lot more on warmup, stretching, and strengthening of my calves as well. I try not to run 2 consecutive days, and take at least 2 days off per week. Cycling does not generally appear to aggravate the calf, so I do more cycling than I did in the past as well.
I am recovering from my annual calf strain. Usually it’s the left leg. It occurs in February or March after I’ve had a layoff and then start running again. I am a particularly active triathlete and 53. This time it occurred after a 10 mile run outdoors. I had been treadmill running for 2 months. I have a few theories, one being dehydration because I tend not to bring enough liquid to drink outdoors. Another is tight quads and hamstrings from allot of swimming and biking. Since everything is connected a tight hip can also translate into extra strain on your calf. I also stop getting a regular massage in the off season. I get deep tissue massage every 2 weeks.. Often it’s the lower hamstring that’s really tight and when massaged it loosens everything. Your running stride may be off, perhaps you need to shorten your stride. Have you ever counted strides? Minimum should be 90. Count one leg for :30 on a treadmill, should be 44-45. Perhaps do :15 on a stationary bike to warm up before each run. Stretching after you run. After very long rides and runs I will sit in a cold tub of water filled with 4-6 trays of ice for :15. Flushes out the toxins and contracts any inflamed muscles. It has to be part of your regimen.
Welcome to what seems to be a pretty big club. I have seen dozens of proposed remedies and I’m not sure if there are any silver bullets. I guess we are all a bit different. I have moved to more flexible, lower drop shoes and followed some of the strength and running technique prgrammes on this website. I had a lovely 8 month period with no calf issues at all follwing this. My calves have flared up again, but I seem to be able to control it and minimimse the damage a bit now. One of the best pieces of advice I have found is at the following link;
It seems to provide a pretty sound way back into running. The advice above is also pretty sound I think. Try a few things and see what recipe works for you.
I’ve dealt with the same calf issues. A couple things I found that helped me out. Increase in salt, I take salt tablets as I sweat a lot and when your low on salt you tend to cramp up. Secondly, the best thing I’ve done was go to a sports therapist and get a deep tissue massage on the knots. She was able to work them out (it hurts like crazy at first). I guess it’s like scar tissue that needs to broken up. Hope that helps. I still have to watch it closely but did Ironman WI and made it through. Good Luck!
Marc, today I goggled Running calf injuries and ran across your story. I am 51 yo and have an almost identical story to yours. I too have been training/doing sprint tri’s but cannot do anything longer due to repetitive calf strains/pulls. I was wondering if you have figured out anything that works for you? Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.
A salutary lesson…from an old fool!
OK, I’m 63 and have just suffered my second calf strain in 6 years.
Now I know this isn’t a running issue…but I found the website whilst looking for ways that I might avoid a similar incident in the future. I believe the majority of the website’s advice applies to ski mountaineers too…
Last week I set off for a day’s ski-touring in the Austrian’ Alps. I was walking along a fairly level stretch having just skinned up alongside a piste. I heard a ‘twang’ and it felt like someone had just shot me in the leg! Being 5,000 ft up on a mountainside – on my own – with the lifts closed suddenly made me feel what an idiot I’d been venturing out alone..
As I side-slipped down the mountainside I’d plenty of time to think…and reflect on my past “tough man” mountain philosophy…
Having been on this planet a fair time – I saw nothing wrong in packing just half-a-litre of water in my day pack. And I’d dismissed those ‘fancy’ mineral enhanced drinks years-ago.
Warming up? Well a few stretches and I’m ready to go. And as for special training – a daily 20 min, session on an exercise bike/cross-trainer will do. Why bother with specific sports-related exercises…I’ve usually got by OK.
As you can see I’ve been a real Dumbo!! NOW I KNOW BETTER.
So, thanks James for posting such helpful information online. It’s really appreciated!
And anyone else reading this who thinks I’m a: “Dick Head”. Well, I’d be the first to agree!!
When I got back to the UK I went to see the doc. I’d used RICE and was wearing a compression sock. He offered no real useful advice…and said the waiting list to see a National Health Service physio was 6-8 weeks so I’d best go private! So, don’t believe all you here about our wonderful free health service. GPs are great at dishing out drugs…but when it comes to rehabilitation for muscle tears…well it seems there’s a bit of a black hole in our welfare system…
Good luck to all those who enjoy outdoor sports – and here’s wishing everyone injury free activitites. Once I’m on the mend I’ll have a whole new regime of exercises to look forward to…thanks to this website (and a few others). Oh, and I’ll be monitoring my fluid intake etc., too! No more orange holes in the snow…apologies if that too much information 🙂
Any luck? I am a 43 year old Male who ran competitively in High School, College and trained with Elites after. During these times I was blessed enough to NEVER have ANY injuries. I hated warming up, but was forced to when coaches were around, but ran exceptionally well during my “peak”. In late 1998 I gave a kidney to my father and few months later saw the birth of my son. I decided to hang up the running shoes and track spikes and did. Jump to summer of 2004 and the Olympics and I caught the bug again. I began to start slow with an easy mile or two with no issues, except for feeling REALLY out of shape. A good month or two went by with no issues. Then out of no where during an easy 2 mile run I felt a little tightness in my outside right calf followed by a sharp pain (like a nail being hammered) so much that I was forced to slow down eventually to a walk. I walked back home “pissed” off. I took a couple days off and tried at it again with no luck. The pain would eventually move to the inside of the calf and stay soar for a day or so. I would rest months at a time, get back up and running and within weeks to a month or so it would come back. Eventually alternating from right to left calf with the same pain. It was so frustrating that I looked into a sports specialist who ran test and an mri and found no tear. I was sent to a physical therapy center that handled athletes of all calibers. I went twice a week for about 6 months for approximately 3 months. They would heat the legs, stretch them out, put me through stretches and plyometric drills, some days treadmill and finally ice the legs and send me on my merry way. After I was done at this place I was sent home with stretches and core workouts and told to start gradually running. I did and thought all was good. After about 2 months of running easy and only getting up to about 2 miles a day off and on, the pain RETURNED. UGH! Frustrated I threw my shoes in my closet and told them to go to hell. “Yeah Funny I Know!” From this point on I would revisit running after 3-6 months off with a good month or two of running before injured again. Last year I began seeing a chiropractor/sports specialist who would do cupping technique and rolling out the calves and stretching out and would have me get massages on my legs every 2 weeks or so. I began to alternate running and swimming before this. I was good for a few months again and just last week after being off of running to recoopearte I returned and “BAM” injured again as of last Monday. I don’t know what I would do if I could not walk, let alone run, but am frustrated as all hell now trying to figure out what next to get better. I’ll stay in shape swimming and biking, but I am neither a swimmer or biker and fell like “a fish out of water” doing both these activities. Please let me know if you found anything that helped Marc or ANYONE on here.
This is a really informative article thanks. Since the GSR in late October I have really suffered with firstly my hips and now my left calf. I have no idea if this is a strain or just a bit of an ache. I am unable to run and finding it difficult to put proper pressure on my left foot. I can walk but not using the usual rolling heel to toe movement. Like all runners I’m in a state of acute frustration. Is it best to see a physio or sports masseur first ? Thanks
In my experience, the hips and calves are so closely linked – I’d suggest going to see a physio as a priority, rather than a sports massage therapist. A good running specialist physio will be able to give you a thorough assessment and diagnosis of the root problem.
If you need any suggestions re who to go and see physio-wise, drop me an email 🙂
Sorry to hear about the ongoing agony you have been experiencing. The stabbing pain and especially the knot sound like symptoms of grade 3 strain from what I read. I think a visit to a doctor will be worth the trouble; from a guy who strives to avoid them outside of a routine annual exam.
Everyone else: glad to find you all here because I had my first experience in a marathon this past Sunday. It was very much as Cesar had described with tightening and the nail driving. Just before 30k I felt left calf tightening for 50 to 100 meters. Thinking a cramp I pulled off at a loo and water stop to unload and then load. I mention because I was stationary for the unload and was walking a few steps to load up at the water line when SNAP. I actually looked about to see if a stray golf ball wasn’t bouncing away from my leg. With my first attempt to continue walking, I was immediately aware something was wrong. The pain was acute. Looking at my toes and knee cap being 12 o’clock on my left leg a nail seemed to be stabbed into my calf at 4 or 5 o’clock any time I tried to load my toes during a step. No knots or bruising though. It’s Wednesday now and I am able to make a ginger range of motions through a step, but I dare not step on my toes yet!
From my reading up on this injury, my first at 44, it appears this could be the end of a Boston qualifying time which I was on the way to nab. But the following article appears interesting. Maybe a bit of a paradigm shift in what appears to be a general school of thought.
Good luck to everyone here, and thanks Mr. Dunne for the forum!!
Update to January 23, 2014 post for benefit of anyone going through this:
Got back to a normal walk in about a week or so. Tender half mile jog 2/3 followed by slow 2 milers until a 5 miler on 2/19. Slowly and cautiously worked up to several 5 mile runs a week, currently at a 7:30ish pace. Long run is at 8 miles now. Just signed up for the same January marathon I injured myself in. Obviously worlds away from the doomsday outlook I had this past January. I didn’t see any doctors for the injury.
Hi I am a mountain runner who is now 56 years old I also cross country ski and bike ride to keep in shape. I have had several years where I get these calf injuries which really keep me from training like I would like. I usually get up to maybe 4 or 5 mile runs several times a week then it seems I began to have problems. The injury starts as my calf tightens up usually when running up steep hills. After several minutes it will hurt like a sharp pain in the middle of the calf. I have had this occur in both legs as well in different parts of my calves. It is so frustrating. After reading your site info and the letters from other athletes I feel like I am not alone. I believe that doing the hops and jumps to improve elasticity and strength might help me to return to running and hopefully be able to train at a level where I can do longer races again likes PIkes Peak or the la Luz trail run. I know I could still be very good in my age group if I could just train harder and run say 50 miles a week again like when I WAS YOUNGER. I am so sad that I have not been able to run consistently now for so many years because of this injury. I feel it is probably partly from an imbalance and or weakness with too much tightness. Maybe all the biking and uphill fast hiking have kept my calves too tight or weak for the running motion and eccentric contractions that they have to take when running up steep mountain trails and of course downhill as well. Any advice on helping get my calves more able to handle the training. I heard wearing the compression socks might help as well as doing the hops and jumps and also shorter hill sprints and bounding to condition the fast twitch fibers and balance out my imbalanced body. I feel my quads and glutes are very strong but maybe my calves are too weak in proportion?? All the biking and Nordic skating make them very strong. I am also going to see a foot doctor to see if maybe I need arch supports or orthotics for my pronation which I do have to a minor degree. I wear stability shoes with a little more support on the inside of the shoe. Look forward to you reply thanks Tom Kirchgessner old washed up endurance athlete
I too have struggled with calf injuries like Marc and Cesar for years and it keeps me from running which is very important in Triathlons. It is so frustrating because it may happen on a short non-stressful run for no good reason. I have tried everything from the exercises to stretching and even yoga. While all this has me feel better, my calf strains are still occurring. Any hope out there?
Update to May 18, 2014 post. Success. Back in January of 2014 I thought the sun would never shine again. By May 2014 I was very cautiously optimistic. After continuous, slow, steady progress throughout the whole of 2014, in January 2015 I ran a 3:20 marathon. I ran cautiously through the year, listened to my body, and ended a run if something didn’t feel right. My injury manta is Don’t Press Your Luck! I never saw a doctor for my calf issue.
As a side note, I did see a physical therapist for plantar fasciitis last fall. I think that I beckoned the fasciitis with summer lunchtime basketball in old running shoes. I still battle the inflammation, but it’s improved. I believe it to be completely unrelated to the calf issue.
I hope these accounts come as a benefit to someone. It sucks to have a limiting injury, especially when aging. Good Luck!!
…Oh yeah, I changed my gait. I had knee issues when I tried to run too fast in 2013. I modified my gait to ensure most of the acceleration from a step came from the toes. My belief was that pulling the lower leg through a step was not supported through the knee. I was probably right in my analysis, but not in my solution.
In January 2014 I strained my calf muscle as outlined in earlier posts. I think it was from the overtaxing of my calf muscles; too much pushing off with toes for too long and at such a fast pace. In my 2014 recovery I stayed off of my toes in my stride as much as I could. I adopted a landing on the mid foot to avoid unnecessary breaking by landing on the heel and to avoid overtaxing my calf muscle.
My gait did not work against me in January 2015. I think it gave me a lot of control to accelerate as needed and demanded the least energy to keep me going.
I play soccer and do body building and train calves
I have a problem when playing soccer as soon as I burst off into speed I immediately pull my inner calves .
I’ve been to physio as the calf becomes tight they do accu puncture and it’s cool after a few weeks the same thing happens again
This is because my inner calves are weaker thn the outer calves
Any suggestions as to whT I should do?
I do stretch very well
But as soon as I train calve in the gym they tighten up again and then when I play soccer they pull really badly
Hi – great resource here. I have what i think is a Grade 2 calf tear/strain which occurred 3 days ago. I’m eager to get some other exercise in and was hoping to get on my road bike.
I do have a short cycle (1/2 mile) to and from work, which hasn’t caused me any pain or discomfort this week, but just wondered what the thoughts were to cycling so close to when the injury took place?? is it best to leave for a week or two, or is it a case of if it doesn’t hurt it’s ok?