Ever lace up your sneakers, start to run, then experience a nagging, uncomfortable calf pain the second you pick up the pace? The good news: You're not alone. The back news: The pain is probably hindering your progress — whether you're on the roads, treadmill or trail.
"The calves are important for running, because they are the major stabilizers of the knee and ankle," Jaclyn Fulop, MSPT, owner of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"They have a major impact on your running stride while also being responsible for balance, and if the calves are too weak or too tight, they put strain on the Achilles' tendon."
To minimize calf pain and get back on track, you need to first identify the cause of the issue. Here, experts weigh in on what exactly could be happening and offer exercises and tricks to fix each.
Depending on your issue, integrate these movements into your routine three or four times a week as part of your warm-up. And — as with any injury — make sure to touch base with a physical therapist who can give you personalized feedback as to what's going on with you and your body.
1. Insufficient Calf Strength
The strength of the calf muscles — in addition to other muscles in the legs and core — is an important piece of the puzzle to be a strong overall runner. The muscles that make up your calves, including the soleus and gastrocnemius, assist in propelling you forward.
But when the calf muscles are weak, you may push them too hard during your runs, leaving them sore and potentially increasing your risk for injury.
To test for calf strength, Brad Whitley, PT, DPT, founding physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments, recommends doing a hop test. "Your goal should be to do a single-leg hop for 30 seconds without fatiguing or having to stop," he tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In this case, it's more of a "diagnose it." If you realize that you fatigue quickly from the box hop, then you can incorporate calf-strengthening exercises into your routine once daily for one month, and then repeat this test.
- Start standing on top of a box or bench.
- Jump down to the floor with both of your feet at the same time. Bend your knees slightly to absorb the shock.
- Step back onto the box and repeat for 10 reps.
Work your way up to doing this single-leg. But when starting with one leg, try doing the movement from a box lower to the ground.
2. Poor Ankle Mobility
Running is a single-leg exercise — you're always moving on one leg at a time. Because of this, balance and stability are incredibly important, especially in the ankles. If your ankles lack mobility and flexibility, it could negatively impact your running gait, which, in turn, could lead to calf pain.
Ankle mobility exercises are a critical component to the routine of any runner. According to the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, ankle exercises help improve the strength and flexibility of the ankle joint — which helps improve your balance and prevent falls.
Add some ankle mobility exercises into your running warm-up, including the one below:
- Start standing facing a wall.
- Place your fist on the ground touching the wall and have the toes of one foot meet the edge of your fist.
- Step the other foot back so your toes are in line with your opposite heel.
- Bend both knees and lean toward the wall until you feel a stretch in your ankle and calf and your knee almost touches the wall.
- Straighten your legs to return to standing.
- Repeat for 10 reps on each side.
3. Weak Glutes and Hamstrings
Weaknesses upstream can cause a trickle down effect and end up causing calf pain and discomfort.
"The glutes are much bigger and more powerful muscles so if they shut down or are weak, the smaller muscles like the calves will take more on and can fatigue more easily," Fulop says.
Strengthening the glutes and hamstrings is imperative for any runner to maintain good form. One of the best ways to do that? Adding deadlifts into your strength-training routine.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Push your hips back behind you and soften your knees to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long with your shoulders back and down. The dip in your lower body should be very minimal. Brace your core to maintain this position.
- With your weight centered between your heels and balls of your feet, drive your feet into the floor to stand. Imagine trying to push the floor away.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.
4. Wearing the Wrong Shoes
Choosing a running shoe can be a really personal choice, and the right one for you should be based on a lot more than just aesthetics, Whitley says. The wrong sneaker can cause issues up the kinetic chain — including, yes, straining the calf muscles or muscles further up resulting in too much pressure on the calves, leading to overuse and pain.
"While there are loads of different sneakers based on different foot types, the most important thing is you find one that feels right for you," Whitley says. A July 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that comfort is the most important factor in staving off injury on the run, more so than shopping based on your gait type.
Have an expert, like a running coach or physical therapist, take a look at your shoes and the way you run. Then, they can make customized recommendations on a sneaker that may feel right for you and your needs — which could vary based on your factors like run frequency and type.