Your training is going great, and you feel like everything is going according to plan, when all of a sudden—you feel a ghastly pop in your lower leg, and you’re forced to hobble back home.
Oh, God. You just pulled your calf muscle.
Calf pulls are common and painful. But they also respond well to treatment, and there are many measures you can take to reduce your risk of re-injury.
In today’s post, I’ll share with you a few practical tips to help guide you through the treatment and prevention of calf injury while running.
Although it’s not an in-depth piece about the science of calf pain and rehab, it should give you a clear idea on how to proceed, especially during the early stages of the management of a calf tear.
What’s The Calf Muscle?
The calf muscles are comprised of two major muscles: the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle.
The gastrocnemius refers to the largest muscle, forming the visible shape beneath the skin. It’s the more superficial muscle with soleus, a smaller, flat, muscle, sitting beneath it.
Your calf muscles help you point—or what’s known as plantar flexion—your foot downward and help you push off while propelling yourself forward.
Your calf muscles perform quick and large contractions during a run. In general, your calf muscle lifts your heels roughly 1400 times every mile, and your shins raise the toes and absorb impact, supporting the arches.
As you pound the pavement, your calf muscles stretch further than when performing other exercises, and the strain and impact on the muscle caused by additional movement can result in a tear.
For this reason, a wide range of issues and conditions anywhere from mild soreness to serious pain and strains can emerge and hinder performance, especially at the onset of a new training season.
One of the most common injuries that strike the region is ankle pulls.
Calf Strains Defined
Also known as a calf pull, or tear, calf strains occurs when one of the calf muscles is stretched beyond the tissues’ limits, breaking off from the Achilles tendon.
When a strain happens, muscle fibers are torn to some degree. You might feel or hear a pop in your calf muscle. Stretching excessively, lack of warm-ups, doing too much hill work, or overtraining in general, can lead to calf pulls.
Telling signs of a calf strain depend on the severity of the injury.
First degree—the strain may not manifest any symptoms until after running has ceased. You may only feel mild discomfort and tightness when you stretch or contract your muscles.
Second degree—you experience immediate pain at a more serious level than grade one. You feel mild discomfort with walking, and limited ability to run or jump. You may also have bruising and swelling around the injured area.
Third degree—the most serious type. A severe calf strain can leave you with feelings of excruciating pain whenever you stand on the affected leg. Complete inability to bear weight on the injured limb is the telling sign.
Treatment of calf strains for runners
Now that you understand what calf strains are all about, let’s look at what you can do in ways of treatment.
Proper calf pull treatment usually mirrors that of any muscle strain. What follows are the exact steps you need to take to ensure a quick comeback to running.
Your first step is to reduce stress and allow healing.
How long will it take you to bounce back from the injury depends on the severity of the injury. Take two weeks off running for grade one calf strains, three to six weeks for grade two, and as long as possible for grade three.
That said, let pain guide your level of activity. Stop running altogether if running causes the symptoms to worsen.
Do not resume running until you’re symptoms- and pain-free when bearing weight on the injured limb.
Ice the injured limb in the acute phase—usually 48 hours following injury and then after exercise.
Cold therapy helps calm the inflammatory response and increases blood flow to the area, which is a good thing if you ask me.
Wrap cold, cold presses in soft clothes and place it on your injured calf or 10 to 15 minutes.
Just don’t fall asleep with the cold wraps on your leg.
Propping your leg up your heart level is also another tactic to help you decrease swelling and soothe the pain. Ideally, aim to rest your affected foot in an elevated position with ice applied for 15 to 20 minutes every three to four hours, if possible.
Is the pain too much to handle? Then consider taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication.
Unless your doctor instructs you otherwise, you can take either ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief.
These both are strong nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that help relieve symptoms as well as calm the inflammation, especially during early onset.
Reduce the load
The best way to reduce the load on your calf is to reduce or stop running altogether.
Instead, feel free to cross-train for a while, opting for exercises that put minimal to no weight on your calves.
If you decide to keep running anyway, then, at the very least, avoid interval workout, steep hills, and shoes with an aggressive heel-to-toe drop.
Preventing Calf Strains For Runners
Once you have strained your calf muscle, you stand a great risk for getting another one in the future. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are many things you can do right now to reduce your risk.
Here are a few:
Once you can put weight on the affected limb pain-free, start with gentle stretching of the calf muscles.
Stretching not only helps you release any build-up tension in the muscle, but it can also improve stability and mobility in your ankle and knee joints—key for preventing all sorts of lower-body injuries.
As a rule, keep your stretching low to mild intensity and should never be painful.
Here are a few good stretches for your calf muscles:
Another powerful measure is to always start your runs with a proper warm-up.
A proper warm-up increases blood flow to your muscles, making them more elastic and less likely to strain
So what’s the best type of warm-up?
I’d recommend a dynamic warm-up. Start your run by jogging slowly for 5 minutes and then gradually pick up the pace as your core temperature increases and your muscles warm-up.
If you’re gearing for an interval workout, perform a few dynamic stretches to fire up your muscles before you start the actual work.
Here’s my favorite routine.
By now you should know that strength training is a key part of any injury rehab program—calf strains are no exception.
When you increase strength in your lower legs, you will be able to perform more efficiently and with more control, reducing the risk for bad technique, which can lead to injury.
Here are a few exercises for your calf muscles:
Standing Calf Raise
Seated calf raise
This should go without saying, but I’d like to add it anyway.
You do want to improve your running performance and reach your training goals, whether it’s to lose weight, run a sub 20 minute 5K, or whatever, but that’s no excuse to overdoing it.
Overdoing it leads to injury, all sorts of injury, not just calf strains, period. Work your way up to more intense training gradually and slowly.
Pay attention to your body when running, so that you can still train but not overstrain. Once you want to take your runs to the next level, do your research, consult a coach, then do so in a slow and gradual manner. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of your success.