Looking for the best advice on how to prevent calf pain when running? Then you came to the right place.
Calf issues are a pretty common complaint about runners.
But if you take good care of your calf muscles (and other running muscles) by keeping them limber and strong, you’ll not only cut the risk of injury but improve your endurance capacity and athletic performance.
So, let’s get started.
The Anatomy Of The Calves
Before I delve into the main lower leg injuries for runners and the exercises you need to prevent them, let’s take a quick look at your calf muscles.
The calf is made up of two muscles:
- The Gastrocnemius muscle. The larger calf muscle, forming the bulge visible beneath the skin and gives your calf its rounded shape.
- The Soleus muscle. The longer and flatter muscle extending underneath the gastrocnemius and lower down the leg.
These two muscles are the primary source of power for the motion of ankle and foot.
And as you can see in the image above the lower leg region is a complex system of muscles, joints, and tendons. Any sort of damage or injury to these structures—pretty common among runners—can lead to calf pain.
Some of the main conditions caused by such dysfunction include shin splints, calf pulls, and stress fractures.
What Is Calf Soreness?
The conditions happen naturally as your calf muscles—primarily the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles—react to the stress placed on them while running.
You might experience sore calves when running for the first time, returning to the sport after a long layoff, or during periods of increased training load—whether it’s in the form of mileage or speed.
The most common symptoms of calf soreness are spasms, pain, or a pulling sensation, especially when flexing or pointing the foot.
The root cause for calf soreness from running often varies depending on the severity of the pain. Mild soreness might be caused by something as simple as skipping a warm-up or dehydration, whereas strains might result from muscle imbalances or bad technique.
Just like any other running issue, the key is identifying the cause then fixing it. More on this later.
Is it Okay To run With Sore Calves?
If you’re suffering from sporadic calf soreness after running—especially following hard sessions and long runs—it should be safe to keep on training.
But if your calf soreness turns into a chronic painful condition that’s affecting the rest of your life, then it’s time to take the right measures. Although soreness is normal when you take up running for the first time or increase the load, chronic soreness is a big red flag.
Additional Resource – A Tibial Posterior Tendonitis Guide in Runners
Why Do My Calves Hurt When I Run?
Although running has a lot to offer, its high impact nature can take a toll on your body—especially on your calves. Many training and non-training elements can increase this load.
The main ones include:
Increases in Training Intensity
Recent changes in your weekly training volume could be the culprit.
Common examples include increasing weekly mileage, introducing speed work or hill sprint, or simply increasing training intensity too fast without letting the body adapts.
Weak calf muscles can only withstand so much stress before reaching their “line” and getting damaged. This is why, for example, you cannot just jump into endurance training without building the proper endurance and strength base.
When you have tight calves, chances are you might strain your muscles thanks to the incessant and stubborn “pull” that lack of flexibility creates.
Tightness in the calves may also interfere with your gait, forcing your heel to lift off the ground earlier. This, in turn, places a lot of pressure on your forefoot and makes you prone to overuse injuries—especially in the forefoot—as well as bunions and the like.
One of the most common culprits behind calf soreness after running is bad technique. When you have biomechanical problems, your foot may hit the ground unevenly, placing extra strain on the calf muscles.
Improper Running Form
Even the tiniest change, such as overstriding or excessive vertical oscillation, could place more stress on your calf muscle.
Calf soreness is also common among runners trying to improve their running technique. This causes their calves to feel tight or sore. For example, trying to switch from a heel to a forefoot strike can make your calves usually feel sore.
Additional resource – Your guide to Charleys Horse in runners
Dehydration, as well as the loss of electrolytes through sweat, can cause muscle cramps in the lower extremities, especially in the feet and calves. This increases soreness risk.
The severity of the soreness varies depending on the dehydration level. A mild case may cause chronic tightness, whereas serious dehydration can trigger intense cramping or spasms, which can progress into annoying calf soreness.
Lack Of Warm-Up
Experiencing mild but consistent soreness following a run? Your warm-up could be to blame.
Skipping the warm-up forces you to get started on tight and cold muscles. This often triggers muscle spasms while running.
What are Calf Pulls?
Also known as calf tear or strain, these happen when one of your calf muscles, usually the gastrocnemius muscle, is stretched beyond its limit and breaks away from the Achilles tendon.
These pulls can be caused by doing too much too soon (increasing training volume without proper training) or from sudden movement such as pushing off, jumping, or making a quick turn.
When a calf pull occurs, you may potentially feel or hear a pop or snap in the muscle. But in most cases, you’ll experience sudden and sharp pain in the back of your calf.
Over the few coming hours, your calf may feel sore and stiff, but you’ll still be able to put weight on –though it may be a little uncomfortable.
In cases of severe calf muscle tears, bruising and swelling will visible.
Additional guide – Running with bunions guide
What are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are caused by damage and/or degeneration of the muscles and tissues that attach to the shinbone—the tibia.
The main symptom is a dull ache or sharp pain on the inside of the lower leg bone when walking, running, or putting any weight on the affected limb.
Some of the main factors that contribute to the condition include running on hard terrain, overpronation, improper shoes, and most importantly, tightness and weakness in the calf muscles.
The pain is worse on your first few minutes into a run but subsides once you’ve warmed up.
What are Stress Fractures?
Stress fractures consist of tiny cracks on the surface of one of your tibial bones caused by repetitive microtrauma to the bone that outpaces the body’s ability to heal itself.
More specifically, fractures in runners tend to strike the upper and lower aspects of the tibia as well as the lower aspect of the fibula.
Left unchecked, the condition will get worse over time, turning into a debilitating injury that requires long weeks of treatment for a full recovery.
Out of all shin injuries, this condition requires the strictest rehab and takes the longest for full recovery—typically 8 to 12 weeks of rest.
Discover how to treat and prevent stress fractures while running here.
Other Causes of Calf Pain
The above three conditions do not cover the full gamut when it comes to the conditions that can manifest as calf pain.
According to a vein doctor in Phoenix, there is a variety of ailments that can affect the calf muscles, as well as the tissues and blood vessels around it.
Here are few :
- Baker’s cyst
- Compartment syndrome
- Neurogenic claudication
- Achilles tendinitis
- PCL injuries
- Trapped arteries or vessels, such as the popliteal artery.
- Arterial claudication
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Varicose veins
- Deep vein thrombosis
How Do I Stop my Calves from Hurting When I Run
Without further ado, here are the measures to take if you’re serious about treating and preventing your calf pain when running.
Cramps consist of painful and sudden muscle contractions that can last for a while or for several minutes.
These are quite common and usually occur during high-intensity exercise—especially when running.
If you’re dealing with a cramp in the middle of a run, try to slowly stretch and massage the affected area.
If pain persists, try doing some of the legs stretches for a few moments to try to soothe the cramps.
If all else fails, stop running and consult your doctor to rule out the causes of the cramps, especially if it’s a re-occurrence case.
If you’re suffering from a strain, you can use the RICE method:
- Rest the affected leg.
- Ice the affected area 15 to 20 minutes three times a day using an ice pack or bag of frozen peas.
- Compress the injured area with a bandage but pay attention to pain. If it gets worse, loosen the bandage.
- Elevate the affected leg while sitting or sleeping.
In serious cases of pain, consider taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, to soothe your pain and bring down swelling.
See A Doctor
If all home treatments prove futile, then you should consider consulting a doctor or physical therapist to root out the cause of your pain and review your options.
This is especially the case if you’re experiencing symptoms such as swelling, severe pain, needles or pins or numbness, and skin redness.
Some therapists may prescribe a few deep tissue massage sessions to help with recovery.
They may also recommend using a night splint to stop the muscles from seizing up.
Additional resource – Iliotibial band syndrome
The Return To Running
In most cases, running through calf injury will only make things worse.
That’s why you should go back to training until your calf is strong and your knee and ankle are back to normal function.
Otherwise, you’re risking re-injury, and you don’t want that.
I can assure you!
Additional Resource – Overpronation vs Underpronation
How to Prevent Calf Pain In Runners
Take the following steps to reduce your risk of getting sore calf muscles after running.
Increase Your Load Gradually
The best way to avoid calf soreness is to, obviously, avoid overloading the muscle.
I’d recommend that you build your cardio base is to run for time instead of distance. For example, a good goal would be running 30 to 45 minutes three times a week instead of aiming for a specific distance.
Can’t run for 30 minutes nonstop? Then follow the walk/run method, building your base slowly. Here’s the full guide on the method.
A few months in, you can start to go after a distance goal and then incorporate some speedwork later. Keep in mind to never bite more than you can chew.
Stretch Your Calves
Improving your calf flexibility another thing that can help prevent muscle soreness while running.
Perform the stretches the proper way by doing the following:
- Don’t rush. Stretch slowly, holding each pose for 30 to 45 seconds. Take your time.
- No pain. If you experience pain while stretching, ease back, and keep mild pressures on the muscle until it relaxes on its own. Don’t rush it.
- Right and left. Always stretch both sides to make sure your gait is balanced.
- Stay calm. Avoid bouncing or jerking when stretching, as this increases your risk of strain or rupture. And you don’t want that.
Try the following stretches
Standing Calf Stretch
Heel Drop Stretch
If you want to take stretching to the next level, try yoga.
There’s a reason why a downward-facing dog works very well for lower body flexibility and mobility.
Make it a rule to never run cold. Start all of your runs with a dynamic warm-up that includes a 5-minute slow jog, then followed by a 5 to 10 minutes series of dynamic exercises to activate your muscles and increase your body temperature and heart rate.
Here’s my full guide to dynamic warm-ups.
Stay Well Hydrated
As I touched upon earlier, drinking plenty of water during training is key for avoiding not just calf soreness but all sort of trouble.
As a rule, shoot for at least 60 ounces of water every day—drink more if you’re training in hot weather and are sweating profusely.
Start your workouts well hydrated, and keep drinking on the go, especially if you’re running for more than one hour.
You should also take in enough electrolytes to replace any losses. To maintain your magnesium, sodium, and potassium levels, consider adding a pinch of salt of an electrolyte tablet to a few of those glasses.
Improve Your Running Technique
Another thing to pay attention to when dealing with calf pain from running is your technique.
Make sure to change up your stride if you suspect that’s contributing to your pain.
Visualize yourself landing on the rear part of the ball of your foot instead of your toes.
This should help you instill a proper midfoot strike.
For more, check out this video.
Run In Proper Shoes
Getting the right pair of running shoes is another useful strategy for preventing calf soreness. I’d recommend heading to the nearest running specialty store and asking the staff there for advice.
Remember that you need to test a few pairs before you settle on the one.
For more on running shoes, check my following guides:
How to break in new Running Shoes
How Often to Replace Your Running Shoes
How to measure your Running Shoe Size
Strengthen Your Calves
Strength training, especially in the form of eccentric training, can help guard you against calf soreness while running.
Most experts recommend performing the single calf raise for strengthening this muscle. You can do this by doing a simple exercise such as single calf raises.
Ideally, you should shoot for three sets in the 25 to 30 rep range. Do this two to three times a week, preferably on your non-running days.
As a rule, you should be able to perform the same amount of reps on both sides. If it’s not the case, then you might have a serious imbalance issue that you need to fix ASAP.
Keep in mind that doing eccentric training for the first time may cause damage to the muscle fibers, which leads to calf soreness.
That’s why it’s key to slowly introduce eccentric loads on the muscle—and not do too much too soon, unless you’re looking for trouble.
Additional Resource – Your guide to runners itch
Double-Leg Calf Raises
This is one of the standards and best calf-strength building exercises out there.
You can either use weights or your body weight on this one.
Start by standing on the tops of a step bench or a stair with weight in hand, feet hip-width apart. Stand near a wall for balance.
To protect your joints, make sure your hips, knees, and ankles are in vertical alignment.
Next, step up to your tiptoes, pressing down into the balls of your feet to raise your body upward, hold for a moment, then slowly lower to the floor.
Repeat for 16 to 20 reps.
Begin by leaning against a wall with feet shoulder-width apart.
Next, slide back down the wall until your knees are bent at a 90-degree able, then raise your heels off the floor.
Activate your core by sucking in your belly toward your spine.
Start with good upright posture, arms out to your sides to help you balance, lengthening through the spine.
Next, focus on a stationary object in the room, then walk across your forefoot off the floor.
After 8 to 12 steps forward, depending on your space, step backward and walk back on your tiptoes to the starting position.
Seated Calf Raises
This is a fantastic exercise for targeting the soleus muscle—a muscle that’s not easily targeted during other calf exercises.
You can perform the following exercise by sitting in a chair and placing some weights, like a dumbbell or a plate, on your lap, or with a seated calf machine at the gym — your choice.
Begin by sitting on a chair, or calf raises machine, then rest the ball of your feet on a step or block. Keep the weight on your thighs for resistance.
Make sure your toes are turned inward 15 degrees, and knees bent at a 90 degrees angle.
Let your heel drift toward the ground until you feel a stretch in your calves. Then press the balls of your feet into the ground, and raise your heels as high as possible.
Then lower the weight slowly to a count of five to engage the muscle.
Single-Leg Calf Raise
To make the previous exercise more challenging, you can do it on one leg.
Behind by stand on a step or a block on one leg, other leg bent behind you, and near a wall for balance.
With your weight resting on the ball of your foot, let your body sink toward the floor and stretch your calf.
Hold for a moment then drive the ball of your foot and press down into the ball of your foot to raise your heel. Hold the top position for a moment, then repeat.
Keep your core engaged, so you avoid shifting forward or backward.
Jumping Calf Raises
Start by standing with feet flat on the ground with your hands at your sides.
Next, while keeping your core engaged and back flat, forcefully press off the floor with the balls of both feet, then jump into the air, landing softly on the balls of your feet, absorbing the force by dropping into a half squat.
You should feel the tension within your calf muscles, not the quadriceps.
How Do I Stop my Calves from Hurting When I Run – The Conclusion
There you have it. The strength exercises mentioned above are some of the best moves that can help not only prevent calf pain while running but also reach your full athletic potential. That’s a good thing if you ask me.
Now the rest is up to you. You need to take action on what you’ve just learned. Or nothing will change.
Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.
In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.
Keep Running Strong.