How Runners Can Overcome Tight Calves: My top 3 Exercises

 In Lower Limb, Running

Runners reporting the feeling of annoyingly recurring tight calves are one of the most common complaints I hear as a physiotherapist.

Tight Calves are a Big Problem for Runners

Beyond the in practice countless reports I have heard over the last 11 years of treating clients of runners reporting annoying tight calves,  I really gained an appreciation of the size of the problem when in May 2016 I posted the below Facebook video post quickly on leaving the practice. The video went viral (see below).

Tight Calves

Within 5 hours the video had over 13,000 views and within 5 days more than 150,000 views. To date, the video of this being my preferred calf release technique has had over 218,814 views. Crazy.

So clearly tight calves are a problem for runners!

What runners with tight calves typically say

Runners will often with great frustration tell me:

  • I am stretching all the time, I just don’t get it, they won’t go away.
  • I’m using my foam roller all the time, and they still feel tight.
  • I’m getting regular massage work, and I can’t seem to get on top of it.

There’s More to It Than Just This Exercise

However if you were to only turn to the above full foam roller exercise as your solution to your tight calves, while therapeutically feeling better will be a result, it may not be enough to fix your recurring tight calf problem.

What I have found to be true over the many years and hundreds of runners that I have helped get on top of recurringly tight calves is that what was missing is not more stretching or time on the foam roller, but rather strength.

What was missing is not more stretching or time on the foam roller, but rather a strength. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

The Importance of Strengthening Your Calves

A high level of strength of both the calf muscles (gastrocnemius) and the underlying soleus muscle (see image below), is required to get on top of recurring calf tightness.

I am often heard advising clients that ‘tight calves are weak calves’.

When runners hear this I know that they are often not ‘sold’ on the concept, and question what exactly do I mean by this maxim. Their initial scepticism is only further heightened when I advise them to stop stretching all together in order to address their recurring calf tightness, and instead, divert their energy into the below two strengthening exercises in order to get on top of their calf tightness issues.

I am often heard advising clients that ‘tight calves are weak calves’. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

Key Calf Strength Exercises: home and gym based.

The exercises runners wishing to address recurring calf tightness must concentrate on can be broken down into home-based and gym based. The home-based exercises 1-2 below are designed to have a neuro-motor or ‘activation’ type effect. They also provide the basis for building a level of gastrocnemius/soleus endurance. 

In addition to the home-based exercises, runners can also benefit from ‘calf’ (gastrocnemius/soleus) muscle strengthening work in the gym as outlined below.

Gym Based Calf Strength Exercises

The exercises are best performed in a smith rack. The benefit of the smith rack is that it allows for isolation of the muscle/tendon unit which facilitates better strength gains. Alternatives to smith rack work can include calf raise machines, or kettlebell holds with raises. However, I much prefer to see runners completing the exercises in the smith rack.

For gastrocnemius strengthening refer to the below video:

Aim for:

  • the first two weeks: begin with 3-4 sets of x12reps slow pace (3s reps) moderate resistance with 2mins recovery.
  • beyond the following two weeks: 4 sets of  4-10x reps slow pace (3s reps) heavy resistance with 2-3mins recovery.

For soleus strengthening refer to the below video:

Aim for:

  • the first two weeks: begin with 3-4 sets of x12reps slow pace (3s reps) moderate resistance with 2mins recovery.
  • beyond the following two weeks: 4 sets of  4-10 xreps slow pace (3s reps) heavy resistance with 2-3mins recovery.

For more information on the benefit of strength training in the gym with heavy loads listen to Episode 74 of The Physical Performance Show podcast featuring running researcher, Associate Professor and Physical Therapist Dr Rich Willy HERE>>

1. Single Leg Calf Raises.

View the video below for a demonstration of single leg calf raises.

Instructions:

  • Start with 3×12 reps
  • Progress to 3×20 reps
  • Then 1×30 continuous reps
  • Then 1×50 continuous reps
  • To progress further this can be achieved by adding weight (e.g. dumbbells in one hand), or inside a calf raise machine or smith rack at the gym. Watch this video on how to rehab the Achilles tendon HERE>>.
  • Be sure to take 3s per rep, and to push through the first and second toes (as opposed to rolling on to the outside of the foot).
  • Also be careful to not rock your body weight forwards and backwards to generate momentum as you fatigue, or begin to flex (bend) the knee.

*This is critical if you are aiming to run half marathon distances and beyond.

I find this is critical if you are aiming to run half marathon distances and beyond. #performbetter @pogophysio Click To Tweet

I used to instruct runners that 30 calf raises was the goal. Now I instruct runners that 50 single leg calf raises is the goal*. Our calf muscles are a key propulsive element of our running, generating the last bit of force at the time of toe-off during the gait cycle.

2. Soleus Wall Squats

Often times strengthening of the soleus is ignored. Failure to strengthen the soleus with an effort on the gastrocnemius muscles (above exercise 1) can result in ongoing feelings of tight calves.

Instructions:

  • Start with 30s holds 3-4 reps.
  • Progress to 45s holds 3-4reps.
  • To progress further add weight with dumbbells in both hands.

In addition to the above two strength exercises that runners can work on at home

3. Full Foam Roller Sit.

I stumbled on this one day when I felt like I needed to trigger my calf muscles but felt too lazy to use the typical method of overlapping my extended legs out in front of me on the full foam roller. Instead, I thought what would happen if I just sat on the full foam roller and shifted my weight gently side to side. It felt effective and so I posted it on Facebook on the running.physio community and it went viral as outlined above.

So if you feel like you need to do something for your tightness, rather than stretch try this foam roller exercise.

Instructions:

  • Aim for 1-2mins, or as long as you feel you need (4-5mins max).
  • Gently press your body-weight from one side to the next. If you have a long full foam roller, you can lever the edges down with your hands, if just a short full foam roller you can just ‘rock’ your body weight.

One added bonus of this is the stretch you feel at the front of your ankles and the tops of your feet. These structures are rarely mobilised or stretched out.

How Often Should You Do Exercises 1-3?

In summary, if you feel like your calves are recurrently tight, try the above three exercises. Completing the above three exercises I would suggest should be in proportion to:

  1. The amount of running you are doing. The more you are running the more frequent these exercises can be completed.
  2. The intensity of tightness you are feeling. If you feel high dress of tightness complete the exercises more frequently e.g. 4-5x week, as opposed to 1-2 x week.

Lastly, while a deficit of strength and associated endurance of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles is typically the key driver of feelings of recurring calf muscle tightness, a runner will also need to consider other potential contributing factors such as outlined in the below diagram.

Tight Calves

Source: Page 63, You CAN Run Pain Free! A Runner’s 5 Step Guide to Enjoying Injury-Free and Faster Running

Other potential contributing factors that can cause recurring calf tightness for runners can include:

  • Cadence (over-striding running technique). One of many adverse effects of this can be substantially greater impact forces on landing, than the runner who runs with a quick cadence and far less impact loading of all lower limb structures. Click through to read more, Technique Principal 1: Running Cadence.
  • Runner’s frame (or body) weight. Surplus frame weight can create tightness due to the excessive loads being placed on the hard working calves at the time of impact (shock absorption) and also the time of propulsion generation during toe-off. To read more click through, The Role That Body Weight Plays in Injury Onset.
  • Footwear. Shoes that have lost their shock absorption abilities can create adverse loading at the time of impact on all lower limb structures including the calves. If you need an insight into which shoes to buy next, click on Which Running Shoes Should I Buy.
  • The strength of the rest of the kinetic chain that includes the hips, and ‘core’. Click through for some foundational hip strengthening exercises, 4 Must Know Running Strength Exercises.

Struggling with Recurring Calf Strains?

If you’re a runner struggling with recurring calf strains, as opposed to feelings of calf tightness strengthening as outlined in exercises 1 and 2 can also be key to getting on top of your injury pattern.

Click through to learn more about how to get on top of recurring calf strains, Say Goodbye to Recurring Calf Strains.

All the best with getting on top of your calf tightness. Let me know if you have any questions, and equally your success over at the Running.Physio Facebook community.

Physio With A Finish Line,

Brad Beer physiotherapist gold coast

Brad Beer (APAM)

Physiotherapist (APAM)
Author ‘You CAN Run Pain Free!
Founder POGO Physio

Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog

pain free performance Gold Coast physio

 

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