Love your calves!
Updated: Jul 18, 2018
Alongside working as a running coach I’m also a sports and remedial massage therapist. This means that I have found interesting traits and trends comparing runners with non-runners in terms of where the tightness and knots are.
Essentially running asks a lot of your calves, ankles and feet, they are acting as shock absorbers as well as propelling you forwards! They are often the tightest areas of the body in runners compared with non-runners. Calves will often be very tight and have specific knotted areas in some of the deep muscles running down the back of the lower leg.
Why is this useful to know?
When most start running training you assume your body will do a fantastic job of adapting and growing stronger, which it will, but for lots of reasons that process might not go perfectly. So it’s good to know the areas which might need a big of TLC. By taking care of your feet, ankles and calves you can prevent problems from cropping up but also get early warning of potential imbalances and problems. They act as a reminder to ease off training, stretch for longer or rest more. You can use calf tightness and foot grumbles as a barometer to guide you when you are ramping up training.
What can you do about it?
As with all areas of the body there is lots of complexity in the muscular systems in the lower leg. The ankle and foot are very complex from both a skeletal (bone) and tendon point of view. The main visible calf muscles provide the power to straighten your ankle joint (extend or plantar-flex the foot) and to bend the knee. The push you forwards and off the ground when your foot reaches the back of your stride pattern. They also, along with the Achilles tendon, store a huge amount of energy when you land on your front foot and release it again when you push off with that leg - making running lee effort - hooray!
There are two main power muscles in the lower leg, both are working hard so need to be stretched; you can do this in the common calf stretch position. Leaning forwards into a wall with one leg straight behind you pushing the heel into the floor with your body weight to stretch the calf. Hole that for 10 seconds and then bend the knee slightly, you should feel the stretch move down the calf a little.
Underneath the two big muscles and loads of much smaller ones than control the side to side movement of the foot and the roll of the foot inwards and outwards (pronation and supination) as well as the movement of your toes. These often don’t feel the effects of the common calf stretches as the bigger muscles are tight. So instead curls the toes of your back foot up onto the heel of the foot in front (easier to do in shoes so your toes don’t spread around your heel) and then lean forwards into the stretch.
A lovely calf release is to stand on the edge of a step, facing up the stairs, and just let your heels drop slowly lower off the step. Hold that for 20-30 seconds and your feel yourself sink into the stretch.
Hopefully these artistic stick diagrams help to explain…!
There are also exercises that can help;
gently rotating the foot in circles from the ankle, in both directions, to increase ankle mobility. This can be done at your desk, in front of the TV etc
Foot exercises like picking up marbles or small items of clothing off the floor to help engage the smaller muscles in the calf that control fine balance, agility and coordination
These stabilising muscles can also be improved by standing on one leg. That can be made harder by shutting your eyes of trying to move your arms whilst staying still on one leg
Why might this be happening?
Your feet, ankles and calves are on the front line, literally, when running. They are the first thing to hit the ground and therefore they take the brunt of the shock absorption.
Most other aarobic sports like swimming, cycling and walking don’t ask nearly as much of the lower legs and feet, so the muscles and tendons are often not as well adapted to the demands of exercise when you start running. They need time to adapt, often more time than other areas of the body.
The pain feels like it's more at the front or around my shin
There are muscles that run to the outside of your shin bone on each leg. Take a look at this diagram of the front of your lower leg taken from the brilliant "Trail Guide to the Body". The muscles to the outside of the shin are hard to stretch, you reach the range of motion limit of your ankle before you really stretch the muscle, but you can get into it by rolling it with a tennis ball, or with sports massage.
If you shin is painful, or you think it might be (it can be really hard to tell exactly the root of the pain here) then a trip to a phyiotherapist would be sensible. In a small number of cases this can be a stress fracture of the shin bone and for that the treatment is different.