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As runners, we’ve all experienced the discomfort of tight calves at some point in our training. It can be frustrating when this issue starts to affect our performance and enjoyment. The good news is, addressing tight calves is relatively simple. As a physiotherapist and a fellow runner, I have first-hand experience dealing with tight calves and have gained valuable insights into how to effectively address this issue.
In this article, I’ll be sharing some of the techniques and exercises I’ve used to successfully loosen tight calves and prevent future injuries in more detail. I’ll also provide videos and instructions for reference.
- A combination of 30 to 90 seconds of foam rolling and 1 to 2 minutes of classic calf stretching can help loosen tight calves and improve overall flexibility.
- Understanding the causes of tight calves, such as overuse and muscle imbalances, is important for prevention and treatment.
- Choosing the right footwear, strengthening calf muscles, correcting muscle imbalances, fixing running form, and adjusting training load are all effective ways to prevent tight calves.
- Ignoring tight calves causes gait compensation which can lead to tightness in other areas like your knees and hips.
Effective Strategies to Loosen Tight Calves
There are several effective strategies to loosen tight calves ranging from advanced stretching techniques like contract-relax and hold-relax to dry needling and cupping. However, these techniques are often done by experienced professionals.
In my experience, foam rolling and then doing long static calf stretching is one of the simplest and most effective ways to loosen tight calves.
To understand how you can implement these strategies, let’s dive into each technique a little deeper.
Foam rolling for 30 to 90 seconds
On its own, foam rolling does very little in loosening tight muscles. However, foam rolling before stretching can dramatically increase its effectiveness.
Foam rolling breaks down fascial (the thin sheath covering the muscle) adhesions that restrict the movement of the muscle. By breaking down the adhesions first, we’re allowing our calf muscles more range of motion for the stretch.
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended, and place a foam roller under one calf.
- Roll up and down the calf muscle, applying gentle pressure.
- If you find a tender spot, pause and hold the pressure for a few seconds. Repeat on the other calf.
Rolling for 30 to 90 seconds is a good number to aim for as overdoing it can be counterproductive. Also, be sure to apply adequate pressure. Foam rolling shouldn’t be painful but you also have to apply enough pressure to break the adhesions.
There are a variety of foam rollers available in the market. Personally, I prefer a medium-density foam roller with knobs and ridges. I use the 321 Foam Roller which I got from Amazon and I find them fantastic. Soft rollers don’t do enough in breaking adhesions while hard-density rollers are sometimes too painful to use.
If you want to learn more about foam rolling, I created a complete article about it.
Long classic calf stretch
Stretching should be the bread and butter of your rehab. Aside from being highly effective in loosening tight muscles, It can also help increase flexibility and mobility in the muscles as well as alleviate stiffness and soreness. For loosening your tight calves, you want a long static stretch instead of short dynamic stretches.
Here’s a written guide to a classic calf stretch:
- Stand facing a wall, about an arm’s length away, with one foot in front of the other.
- Bend your front knee and place your hands on the wall at shoulder height.
- Keep your back leg straight and your back heel on the ground, feeling a stretch in your calf.
- Hold the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes then switch to the other calf (some sources will say to hold for 20-30 seconds and do multiple sets. But in my experience, holding it longer for only 1 to 2 sets is more effective)
Though a classic calf stretch is already an effective tool, the gastrocnemius muscle has other heads. Thus, adding a little bit of bias by switching stretching angles can help loosen your tight calves much faster (see the video below)
It’s important to note that stretching should be done slowly and gradually. Rushing into stretches can lead to injury. It’s also important to listen to your body and not overstretch, as this can also lead to injury. Moreover, stretching also works great as a preventative measure by diligently stretching after running.
Related post: How Long Should Runners Stretch? (A Detailed Guide)
Why Your Calves Become Tight
In order to understand how to effectively prevent future calf tightness, we must first understand why you’re having tight calves. There could be several reasons for this. The most common are the following:
- Overuse -. When you run, your calf muscles are constantly contracting and expanding, which can cause them to become tight and strained over time. This can be especially true if you increase your running mileage too quickly or engage in high-intensity training without proper rest and recovery.
- Weak calves – Tightness of the calves is often a sign that your calves are not yet strong enough for the intended volume. Thus, your calf muscle tightens up as a protective mechanism to stop you from going further.
- Muscle imbalances – If the muscles in your legs are not equally strong and flexible, it can lead to compensations and overuse of certain muscles, including the calves. For example, if you have weak glutes or hamstrings, your calves may compensate by doing more of the work, leading to tightness and strain.
- Poor footwear choices – Worn-out, low heel-to-toe drop, or ill-fitting shoes can put extra strain on the calf muscles. It’s essential to wear properly fitting shoes that provide adequate support and cushioning for your feet and legs.
How to Prevent Tight Calves
While foam rolling and stretching are effective strategies to address tight calves, learning how to prevent them is equally important.
Adjust your training load
Too much training volume or increasing your volume and intensity too quickly is one of the most common reasons why you’re having tight calves. Thus, taking a step back and readjusting your training volume can help prevent the recurrence of your tight calves.
Gradually increase your mileage and intensity. A good rule to follow is to increase your training mileage by no more than 10% each week. Incorporate rest days and recovery periods into your training plan. Have at least one full rest and one active rest day per week.
Strengthen your calf muscles
As you’re taking a step back from your training load, you should strengthen your calf muscles to prepare them for any increase in volume and intensity. There are a lot of ways to strengthen your calves, but if you want to skip thinking, here’s the strengthening routine I usually do:
- 3 sets of 12 reps single leg calf raises
- 3 sets of 12 reps seated calf raise (with weights on top of my legs to increase intensity)
- 5-10 minutes of skipping exercises (could be jump ropes, single leg hops, or anything that involves skipping on your forefoot)
I gradually increase the intensity by adding weights. Sometimes, I do mountain hiking as they are a great, less boring way to strengthen your legs in general.
Related post: Does Lifting Weights Help Runners? (A Coach Explains)
Correct muscle imbalances
When your other running muscles are weak (like your glutes and hamstrings), your body may compensate and give more emphasis to the toe-off (which involves your calf muscles). Thus, when done over a long time, your calf muscles might get overused and starts to tighten up.
Thus, doing exercises for your glute muscles and hamstrings can help prevent calf muscles. Some of the best exercises for these include:
- Glute bridges
- Fire hydrants
- Glute kickbacks
- Reverse lunge
Glute strengthening is not only for injury prevention but also a great way to improve your performance. I underwent a Glute Kickstarter Program by Kinetic Revolution back in 2022 and my performance has skyrocketed.
Choose the right footwear
Recently, the trend is pushing us to minimalist shoes with low or even zero heel-to-toe drop. Unfortunately, that causes many of the calf issues we’re experiencing.
The type of shoes you wear will entirely be based on your preference, running form, and anatomy so I cannot give you a blanket recommendation. But If you’re one of those people who’s having tight calves even after a short run, you might be better off going for a running shoe with high to mid drop (5mm to 12mm) and working your way down to a low drop over time (If you really want a minimalist shoe).
I used Brooks Ghost with a 12mm heel drop for many months before I moved on to a Nike Pegasus with a 10mm drop (although I still think I should’ve stayed with Brooks Ghost).
If you want to understand heel-to-toe drop and its importance, check out the article that I made that talks about it in greater detail
Fix your running form
In running, we’re taught to land on our forefoot. And although I agree with that advice, we should also note that when running long distances, we should allow our heel to descend and touch the ground to relieve some of the load our calves are carrying.
Running purely on your forefoot puts your calves in a constant contracted position. As a result, it becomes overused and tight.
Why Addressing Tight Calves is Important
While it is technically possible to continue running with tight calves, ignoring the issue can lead to more significant problems down the road.
To better understand the importance of addressing tight calves, it’s helpful to visualize the calf muscles and their role in running. The calf is composed of two primary muscles: the larger, more superficial gastrocnemius, and the deeper, smaller soleus. Together, these muscles are responsible for toe-off, a critical movement for running.
When the calf muscles become tight, they can feel stiff and sore, and you may experience difficulty during toe-off. This can negatively impact your running form and cause compensations in other parts of your body, such as the knees and hips, leading to overuse, pain, and eventually, injury. Thus, addressing tight calves before it becomes a string of other issues is critical.
Understanding the common causes of tight calves helps in preventing it from occurring in the first place. Foam rolling and stretching at the first sign of tightness help alleviate the pain and prevent further injuries allowing you to train better and optimize your performance.
By gradually increasing your training volume, strengthening your calves and other muscles, choosing a running shoe with at least 5mm heel-to-toe drop, and allowing your heel to touch the ground after the initial strike on your forefoot, you can prevent your calf muscles from tightening.