Runner’s Guide to Managing Calf Pain

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

It wasn’t a good workout but it was a great run.  I just finished a 5:30 AM run in Santa Clara, CA for 3 1/2 miles and I was thrilled.  Sure, it was only 58 degrees with no humidity, a nice treat from the Florida heat I’m used to, but my excitement was from the fact that I was able to run without calf pain.

I’m out in California with the Jacksonville Jaguars as we prepare to play the Oakland Raiders tomorrow.  I had a few quiet hours this morning before rehab for the players so the timing was perfect for my daily workout.  I didn’t run hard nor did I even burn many calories but I RAN and that was the best part.

Calf Strain Made Easy

Ten days ago I started my day with a calf strain 3 miles into an early 5 mile run.  When I look back at the run that started the pain in the calf, the reasons it happened were obvious.  I suffered a calf strain because I did the following stupid things:

  • Poor Warm-up – I got out of bed at 4 AM and was literally running 11 minutes later.  I skipped my morning soft tissue rolling and stretching routine.  I had to be at the Jags’ EverBank Field earlier that day so was trying to save some time.  Big mistake!
  • Shoe Change – I ran in a new pair of running shoes.  “It wasn’t the time to be breaking in new shoes, Einstein.”
  • Started Too Fast – I was convinced I could finish my 5 mile run in record time and that mindset started as soon as I took the key out of my front door.  I have a steep downhill incline at the end of my driveway.  I remember feeling both of my calves and hamstrings tighten as I ran down that section of my driveway at a 5:30/mile pace 20 yards into my run.  How smart am I??
  • Ignored the Blinking Light – I recall feeling leg pain in both of my calves along with low back tightness about 1 mile into the run.  What did I do?  Nothing.  The dashboard warning light was blinking and I ignored it.  It proved to be the final step in a bad sequence of events on my part that resulted in a calf strain.  I knew better and I only have myself to blame.

Managing Calf Pain

When an athlete hit the 3 decade mark in life, leg pain isn’t too far away.  Calf pain and a pulled hamstring are at the top of the list.  Managing a calf strain is not difficult if you start the sports medicine the right way immediately after the injury.  If not, the pain in the calf becomes chronic and the recovery time is tripled.

  • Ice Immediately – Stop the bleeding and minimize the inflammation.  Pack it in ice for 15 minutes or ice massage it for 10 minutes as soon as possible.
  • Shorten the Heel Cord – Adding a bilateral 1/2″ heel lift in both shoes will decrease the tension on the heel cord – includes the Achilles tendon and the two calf muscles – when walking throughout the day.
  • Apply Compression – Compressing an injured muscle is always a positive thing to do.
  • Lengthen to Strengthen – With a calf strain, gradual lengthening of the fascia and muscles should always take place before calf strengthening begins.  I love the downward dog stretch for this injury to elongate the fascia from the low back to the arches.  This is a key step to decrease calf pain after the initial symptom of muscle “grabbing” is gone.
  • Think Functional – Avoid the urge to aggressively stretch and strengthen a calf strain. Boring functional activities like bike riding and walking will get you pain-free sooner than trying to run while the muscle continues to “knot-up” or “grab”.
  • Soft Tissue in Time – Any early massage or soft-tissue work should be minimal for the first 3-4 days post-calf strain. Trust me, I’ve been there with the mindset: “If I could just get this little knot in the calf muscle to relax, I’ll be fine”.  Digging into the muscle early on will only delay the healing and triple the length of your time to return to pain-free running.

Avoiding Pain in the Calf

Calf pain sucks.  Preventing leg pain is a high priority for MikeRyanFitness.com. Here are a few sports medicine tips to help you avoid calf pain:

If the Wrong Shoe Fits, Give it Away – Use common sense when it comes to shoes, athletic and dressy.  Why use a “light weight” racing shoe for a training run?  Maybe that new minimalist shoe feels good walking around the house but is it the best shoe to do a CrossFit workout after work?  The pretty dress shoes may look good but spending 8 hours a day in a high heel will benefit the foot doctor’s W2 more than it will your 10 km time this weekend.

Rule-Out a Blood Clot – If deep calf is experienced, especially after prolonged inactivity or a surgery, see your doctor ASAP to ensure the pain in the calf is not a blood clot.  This is a very important point to stress.

Spend Time With Man’s Best Friend – The downward dog stretch should become part of everyone’s daily routine.  That’s how strongly I feel about its effectiveness in keeping calves healthy for athletes of all ages.  Stretching may not be as sexy as doing curls for the girls but if you want to keep running pain-free, flexibility needs to part of your plan.

Support Early & Often – Whenever possible, calf-high compression socks should be worn.  To work, especially on an airplane and during workouts, compression socks/sleeves will help support the entire shin and keep your calves happy.

 

 

Author: Mike Ryan

After 26 seasons as a full-time certified athletic trainer and registered physical therapist in the National Football League, Mike Ryan has outstanding first-hand experience. His unique professional and athletic background has sharpened his skills in the arts of sports injury management, elite rehabilitation, performance enhancement and injury prevention. Mike is now taking his experience to mainstream America. His mission is simple: Sports Medicine advice that is easy to use and brings fast results. Learn more about Mike Ryan

One thought on “Runner’s Guide to Managing Calf Pain”

  1. Thanks for more good info on Calf strains. I noticed one of the obvious similarities in how I strained mine with one of the mistakes people make. Since I was on a Cruise ship I had taken my treadmill shoes for running, but when I found they had an outdoor track I wanted to use it. But those shoes are more neutral than my regular trail or outdoor shoes and just those few extra mm plus and iron deck more than likely were a big factor in my tearing my calf muscle. Plus it was pretty cold out and I didn’t warm up enough even though I walked the first lap thinking that would be good enough.

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