Traditionally, this time of year I see an increase in runners in clinic in preparation for the spring marathon season. This year with lockdown restrictions, things are a lot different but hopefully soon running events will resume and we can get back to training in earnest.
Calf strains are a common running injury and can be incurred as a result of a heavy increase in running mileage. Marathon training programmes can see a runner who could be a complete beginner or even an experienced runner, running 4-5 times (occasionally more) per week and accumulating 30 plus miles per week. This can be a significant increase to what a runner may be used to. The calf muscles have a relatively short time to condition themselves to the additional load and this can result in injury. Certainly, even without injury, things can start feeling uncomfortable and laboured.
So, what are the calf muscles? The calf muscles are made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius which is clearly visible and the superficial, yet powerful, soleus (the soleus has to support up to 7 times our body weight during running). What do they do? Plantarflexion – which is lifting the heel up off the floor and pointing the toes down so that we can propel ourselves forward.
A calf raise (see below) is a simple exercise which can assist in rehabilitation following a calf injury and is a great staple as part of a strengthening routine for runners.
Calf stretches are a great way to stretch out after a run. Often these are done with a straight leg which stretches the gastrocnemius. But how do we stretch the soleus? This is an easy adaption of the straight leg calf stretch by keeping the heel on the floor and bending the knee. This is not only a useful stretch but can also be useful to improve ankle mobility and dorsiflexion. You can test your calf flexibility by using the knee to wall test (see below).
If you are finding that your calves feel tight at the start of a run, you could try the round-the-clock calf lunge (see below) as a dynamic exercise before a run.
Stand on one leg (you may want to use a wall to gently support yourself). Keeping the leg straight, raise up onto your toes, then slowly lower down. Repeat until the calf muscles fatigue. Change leg and do the same on the other side. You should feel this in your calves. If you are feeling it in your glutes then make sure you are pushing up with your feet and not lifting with your hips. Aim to do 3 sets of 15 reps on each side, make sure to have a recovery between each set, reduce the number of reps if you need to. You could do these 2-3 times per week, ideally, on non-run days.
Knee to Wall Test
Stand in front of a wall with the toes of one leg a short distance away from the wall, bend your knee and try and touch the wall. Do not force it. Keep moving the toes closer to the wall, until you can touch your knee to the wall. Use the position of your toes as a marker. Ideally the gap between the toes and the wall should be 10cm but don’t worry if isn’t – you can hold this position as a stretch or include the calf stretch with a bent knee as part of your stretching routine to try and improve flexibility. Change sides and repeat. Is there a difference between each side?
Round-the-Clock Calf Lunge
This is a dynamic exercise ideal to do before a run. Stand with legs hip distance apart. Step the right leg forward and aim for an imaginary 12 o’clock, then step towards 1 o’clock and work around the clock clockwise to 6 o’clock. Allow the knee on the static leg to bend as you move around the clock. Change legs and start again. Step the left leg forward and aim for an imaginary 12 o’clock, then step towards 11 o’clock and work around the clock anti-clockwise to 6 o’clock.
I hope you found this article helpful. Happy running!