Do you experience calf pain after running? This pain can be avoided if you know what is causing your stiff legs and what you can do to prevent it. Today, we’ll look at why your calves hurt when and after running as well as some ways to make the pain go away. Let’s get started!
What Causes Calf Pain After Running?
There are plenty of reasons your calves hurt after running. Let’s take a look at the four most common causes. If you have stiff legs after going on a run, chances are it’s one of these things.
Shin splints are a catch-all term for lower leg pain that occurs in the front of the shin. More specifically, shin splints are medically referred to as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome or MTSS.
Rather than think that shin splint pain is isolated to the front and side of the shin, pain can also commonly be felt on the medial or inside of your shin bone known as your Tibia. The result of this pain is small micro tears of the periosteum tissue that surrounds the Tibia.
Shin splints are often a result of running too much too soon. If your muscles, tendons, and other connective lower body tissues are not able to adapt to the demands that come with running, your chances of injury increase exponentially. When it comes to shin splints, the shin muscles and the calf may not be working in unison. This means that calf can be overworked and sore after your run.
Much like shin splints, stiff knees are also a cause of running too much too soon. Running generates forces upwards of 2-3 times that of body weight with each foot strike. The entire leg is critical in the success of each foot strike and leg swing.
If the muscles and connective tissues of the lower leg are under-prepared to take on these repetitive forces, the responsibility will land elsewhere. The Quadriceps or thigh muscles will take on more of the burden when landing, leading to stiff and achy knees. Cranky knees post-run will often result in calf pain large due to the muscular imbalance seen between the lower and upper leg.
It is important to note that, while too much too soon is often the culprit, poor running mechanics can also cause calf pain after running. If your running mechanics are off, the demand on the quadriceps may increase. This will cause tugging on the knee joint, and lead to soreness down the leg in the calf.
Calf pain can result from a strain on the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscle groups. A muscle strain is defined as muscle fibers that have been overstretched or torn. While most calf pain associated with running is the result of a very mild muscle strain, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of the varying grades of strains. A list of the various grades is below.
- Grade I Strain – mild, resulting in muscle tenderness and mild pain.
- Grade II Strain – more moderate damage with more muscle fibers being affected resulting in more significant pain, swelling, and tenderness to touch.
- Grade II Strain – severe damage to the entire muscle, considerable pain, swelling, and discoloration, with limited to no range of motion
How to Treat Your Calf Pain
If your calves hurt after running, here are two simple ways to alleviate the soreness in your legs post-run.
Kettlebell Calf Stretch
The primary muscles of the calf are the Gastrocnemius and Solues. They are largely responsible for plantar flexion or pushing the foot downward–like pushing on a gas pedal. These muscles, and their associated tendons, can often become very tight, leading to less-than-ideal running form and the potential for calf pain.
Mobilizing these tissues prior to and after running is essential. If you have a kettlebell near, give this deep mobilization stretch a try:
- Sitting on the ground with your legs extended in front of you and the kettlebell upright.
- Working one leg at a time place the middle of the calf on the top of the handle
- Roll the leg right to left, hitting both the inside and the outside of the calf for 30 seconds
- Next, return to the center of the calf and slowly perform foot circles both clockwise and counterclockwise for 30-60 seconds
- Repeat for the inside and outside of the calf each for 30-60 seconds
- When completed rinse and repeat on the other leg
Foam Roller Calf Stretch
Foam rollers are an incredible tool to help stretch and mobilize calf muscles. Unlike the kettlebell calf stretch above, the foam roller is softer and more like a massage. Pair this with the kettlebell and you’ll feel mobilized immediately. Here’s how to do the foam roller calf stretch:
- Sit on the ground with your legs extended in front of you and your hand positioned behind you for torso support
- Place the center of the upper calf of one leg on the foam roller, with the other leg placed on top for added pressure. Feel free to leave your foot on the ground if the pressure is too intense.
- Begin by bending and extending the knee to allow for small rolling movements up and down the calf. Do this for 30 seconds.
- In the center of the calf slowly perform foot circles (clockwise and counterclockwise) and ankle flexion and extension both for 30 seconds each
- Repeat the last step on the inside and outside of the calf
- Move the foam roller to the lower section of the calf and repeat the knee bends, foot circles, ankle flexion, and extension
- When completed rinse and repeat on the other leg
If you’re looking to follow along check out this TRX Mobility 101 Series targeting the ankle and calves.
How to Prevent Calf Pain
Preferably, you’d like to prevent calf pain from ever happening. Here are three things you can do so that your calves don’t hurt when you run.
Hop & Jog in Place Slowly
Hopping and jogging in place is a great way to warm up the lower leg and calf before heading out for a run. The introduction of these movements into your warm-up routine will improve the elasticity of your calf muscles, preparing them to accept the load that running places on the body. Follow the steps below to give this a try before your next run.
- Stand tall, with arms loosely at your sides, roll slightly onto the balls of your feet.
- Begin gently hopping allowing the ball of your feet to “kiss” the ground
- Once you feel comfortable allow yourself to ease into an easy jog in the place
- Be mindful of creating a subtle movement of the arms from the shoulders to stimulate the upper and lower body connection.
- Perform 2-3 sets for 10-30 seconds.
Erasing calf pain before, during, or after running does require a significant amount of strength. The major muscles of the calf, Gastrocnemius, and Soleus, are responsible for ankle plantar flexion (toe pointing) which is a major part of running. By adding calf raises into your workout routine, you’ll notice calf pain diminish after each run.
- Start by standing with feet shoulder width apart against a wall. Shoes are optional. Bare feet are encouraged.
- Raise up onto the balls of your feet being mindful to keep your weight evenly distributed from your big toe to your pinky toe.
- Hold the calf raise for 2 seconds. Lower to the floor in 3-5 seconds.
- Perform 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps. Increase sets and reps as the exercise gets easier.
We also recommend adding calf raises into your leg day workouts. There are plenty of machines at the gym that target calves, such as the calf machine.
Standing Calf Stretch
Dynamic movements, like the exercises described above, are a great way to prepare the calf for a run. But, once the miles are in the bank, take a moment to stretch while cooling down. Static stretching muscles after a workout can decrease stiffness, increase mobility, and decrease overall leg pain! Give this standing calf stretch a try after your next run.
- Start by leaning into a firm and stable structure, like a wall, with one foot in front of the other.
- Focusing on the leg in the back press your heel into the ground and hands into the wall. You should feel the stretch come through the calf.
- Next, try bending the knee of your rear leg and allowing the heel to come off the ground. You should feel the stretch lower in your calf and even into your Achilles tendon.
- Perform 2-3 sets for 30-60s on each leg
Get Rid of Tight Calves Forever!
Running is a lifelong sport that brings more than just physical wellness to those who lace up. Unfortunately, calf pain after running can sideline even the most dedicated runners. Take the time to get ahead of stiff legs by using our recommendations on treating and preventing calf pain. Your body will thank you later.
Sherif Elnaggar PT, D. (2022, September 22). Calf strain exercises : Treatment considerations. [P]rehab. https://theprehabguys.com/how-to-rehab-calf-strains/
These 4 expert tips give you everything you need to know about treating and preventing shin splints. Runner’s World. (2022, August 1). https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a19595626/shin-splints/