Calf pain and tightness when running seems to be an increasingly common complaint in the clinic.
This is to be expected after an injury but often, runners complain of calf pain without an obvious cause.
It’s known as non-traumatic calf pain.
It usually starts during running, can worsen with increased distance and often results in runs being cut short. Many people complain of tightness as well, which can last for a day or two after the run. When not running, normally there are little to no symptoms.
I’m not injured – so what’s causing the pain?
The most common cause is simply that the calf muscles are fatiguing.
Generally speaking, pain and tightness in any muscle is usually because either:
The muscle is simply weak or lacks endurance
The muscle is being overloaded
How do I know if my calf is weak?
Try this simple test – the single calf/heel raise.
Stand on one leg (using fingertips on a wall/table for balance) and count how many full calf raises you can do on each leg. You should be able to complete an equal number on your left and right leg – for a runner, this should be about 30-40. It should also feel the same on each side.
Think about how many times you use your calf muscles to ‘push off’ when running – these muscles need to work in this way for many reps. If you struggle with this test, it may indicate some calf weakness.
How to strengthen the calves
The single leg calf raise is a great rehab exercise.
Start by doing 3 sets of as many feel comfortable, 3 times a week. Aim to gradually increase the number of reps.
You can then progress onto higher level calf strengthening exercises which one of our physiotherapists can discuss with you.
How is my calf being overloaded?
Ask yourself if anything has changed recently in your training.
Often, upping your weekly mileage, or introducing hill or speed work can be the cause. Perhaps you’ve tried to change your running style or you’ve started doing another form of exercise as well.
The best thing to do in this case is to take some rest time to allow the calf to recover. And then you will need to review your training plan (or in many cases, design one in the first place!) to ensure that this doesn’t continue happening.
Another possible cause of overload is tightness or weakness in other muscles, particularly around the hip. A common example is tight hip flexors and weak glutes causing the calf muscles to compensate and work harder to propel you forward. This is something that our physiotherapists can assess and help you correct.
Finally, don’t let calf pain stop you from doing what you love – come and see one of our physiotherapists to get you out of pain, prevent further injury and get you back to your exercise.