The calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, are famous for the pain and stiffness that almost every runner will deal with at some point. While these symptoms are normally not harmful, they can be uncomfortable and de-motivating, or worse, a precursor to more serious injury. Causes vary, but most cases of this discomfort stem from a short list of common problems. Avoiding these issues can be the key to alleviating calf distress and keeping you on the road.
Inflexibility and Stiffness
Running smoothly, efficiently and without pain requires flexibility, especially in the legs and hips. As you run, your calf muscle contracts and relaxes with each stride. The tighter the muscle, the less it can relax between contractions and the more your calves will stiffen and tire. Your calf acts like a spring that absorbs the shock from running, and if that spring is too tight, pain and injury become more likely. Calves work in synergy with other muscles, especially the hamstrings, so stretching the entire leg consistently may help.
Foot Strike and Calf Pain
The spring action of the calf muscles while running is greatest when your heel is off the ground and the pressure of your stride is focused on the front of your foot. Running styles that exclude heel-strikes and emphasize mid-foot or forefoot strikes can increase the continuous pressure on the calves as it absorbs much of the force of landing. While some argue that these styles of running are better, mid-foot and forefoot striking may contribute to calf pain. Try transitioning slowly into a foot strike that utilizes the roll of the entire foot, including the heel.
Footwear and Offsets
Many mid-foot and forefoot runners wear shoes that have minimal padding for shock absorption, which can contribute to the pressure placed on the calves, especially when running on high-impact surfaces like concrete or hard-packed dirt. Also, running shoes with a high heel-to-toe offset, meaning the heel is higher than the toe, can create extra work for the calves because of the unnatural foot angle. This also applies to the shoes you wear for the hours before and after running, and if you wear shoes with a high offset all day your calves are more likely to be stiff when you run.
Overuse and Recovery
Stiffness and pain in any muscle is often caused by simply working the muscle too hard or too often and it is very important that you schedule and stick to periods of adequate recovery. Take rest days to do light activities and stretching, and vary the length of your runs so that you only do one or two long runs per week. Overuse pain in your calves may also be from weaknesses in the adjacent muscle groups of your thigh that make your calves work harder than they should have to while running.