Running and calf muscle issues

Common issues with calf muscles (read before your next leg workout)

4 minutes to read
Kim Hoffmann

Kim Hoffmann

NASM CES (Corrective Exercise Specialist) and Certified Personal Trainer

Note — The article was checked and updated January 2024.

Our calf muscles have an important function in leg mobility and are not immune to injuries, conditions or other issues

Most of the conditions that we are discussing in the article will need a medical diagnosis, but paying attention to the symptoms can go a long way in knowing what we should or shouldn’t do, and what we can do to treat and prevent any further injuries.

Tight calves

This is a very common condition, and the main reason is having a sedentary job

RELATED — Make exercise a part of your daily routine

When we are sitting down the knee is bent and this creates shortened, or tight calves, which means potential loss of mobility at the ankle. This can cause compensation at the lumbo-pelvic hip complex.  

The other reason is wearing high heels. This is not just a problem for women, though. Anyone who wears running shoes on a regular basis should check the status of their calves. 

Mid, Low and High Height of Heel Shoe and Calf Position

In both types of shoes, the heel is thicker or higher than the front, and so our calves are always contracted. In the case of the running shoe, a thicker heel helps to absorb the impact when we run. 

Stretching out calves regularly and changing our shoes helps to relax and lengthen the calf muscles.

Pes planus (Flat feet)

This is a condition in which the arches of our feet cave in and we end up with flat feet. However, the issue doesn’t stop there.

If our feet cave in, our ankles and knees follow, giving us knocked-knees. This, in turn, means that our hips will be internally rotated and our pelvis will tilt forward, making our lower back arch.

RELATED — Your Guide to Good Posture: Tips and Exercises 

Normal and flat feet

This can lead to all sorts of dysfunctions in the big toe and ankle joints, hip joints, and lower back. We may also develop injuries such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, patellar tendinitis and low back pain.

Shin splints

Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome or shin splints is an injury caused by overuse. 

If you have this condition, you will feel pain and tenderness on the inner and lower part of your shins, especially during movements like running and jumping. 

In an optimal situation, the body is able to absorb impact forces by stiffening the soft tissues in the lower leg to protect the bones from the impact. 

Risk factors for shin splints include:

  • Wearing improper footwear
  • Overpronated feet
  • Over-supinated feet
  • Weak glutes
Shin splints - Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome

To improve and heal shin splints, we need to stop doing high impact activities for a little while and focus on foot mobilisation, foot strength and glute strength.

Achilles tendinopathy

The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body whose role is to transfer energy and recoil from dynamic movements.

Tendinopathy, formerly known as tendinitis, is an overuse injury in which we can experience pain, swelling and lack of performance in the specific tendon area, in this case the Achilles tendon.

Achilles tendinopathy
Source: Anthony Van Bergeyk - Achilles Tendonitis. Foot Education.

A big risk factor for Achilles tendinopathy is limited ankle mobility or a tight Achilles tendon.

Plantar fasciitis (inflammation on the bottom of foot)

The plantar fascia is a thick band of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot. It runs from the heel to each toe, and it provides support during movement, so every time we take a step the plantar fascia lengthens and recoils to transfer energy.

Normal plantar fascia
Source: David Redfern Surgery

With limited ankle mobility and/or a tight Achilles tendon, there won’t be enough stretch in the fascia which causes micro-tears

These micro-tears cause inflammation and pain, especially when taking the first step in the morning or after a period of rest.

Plantar fasciitis
Source: David Redfern Surgery

When exercising with Achilles tendinopathy and/or plantar fasciitis, it is important to avoid high impact exercises that place stress on the tendon/fascia and ankle mobility. Instead, focus on increasing foot and ankle mobility.

Low back pain

Low back pain is usually a consequence of having to compensate due to pain or suboptimal movement somewhere else in the body. 

Pes planus or tight calves can be the reason for low back pain

If our calves are so tight that they are always contracted, our centre of gravity gets pulled forward. In order to remain upright, we need to arch our back which puts stress on our lumbar discs.

If tight calves are indeed the reason for low back pain, one of the ways to treat this is by stretching calf muscles regularly.

Exercises for ankle mobility

To improve ankle mobility, and relax the calf muscles, we can do a few things to tackle it. As a corrective exercise specialist, and depending on your condition, I would start with 

  • foam rolling
  • stretching
  • strengthening certain muscles 
  • put it all together in a controlled movement 

In practice it would look like this:

Foam rolling the foot

When massaging your feet, you want to use something that digs into the skin and feels like a massage. A tennis ball should be fine, but ideally you want a massage ball.

Foot massage

Foam rolling the calf muscle

Any foam roller will do, but if you’re a beginner or you have a lot of tension, start with a soft one. The harder the roller, the more pressure you’ll get which can make it very painful. 

When rolling the calves, you can either focus on one leg or do both at the same time. When you find a tender spot, or knot, try to relax the muscle to not create more tension. 

Hold that spot for 10 seconds, then move onto the next spot. To create more pressure on the knot, lift your hips off the floor.

Calf Foam Rolling

Stretch calf muscles

To stretch the calf muscles, stand in front of a wall and pretend like you’re pushing the wall away. Keep your heel on the floor. You should feel a stretch in your calf. 

Calves stretch - Gastrocnemius
Gastrocnemius stretch
Calves stretch - Soleus
Soleus stretch

You can bend the knee slightly to change the stretch to a lower part of the calf muscle, the soleus. Stretch the part of the calf that has the most tension. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then swap legs.

Strengthening the shin muscles

In order to restore correct movement patterns, we need to “wake up” the muscles that were not functioning as well as they should have been. 

The main muscle on the shin is the anterior tibialis muscle

This is a muscle on the front of the shin that gets lengthened when the calf is too tight. An exercise to strengthen this muscle is to sit on the floor with your foot elevated and then to pull your toes towards your body. 

Try to relax the rest of the leg and isolate this muscle on the shin. Do three sets of ten on each side. 

Calves and foam roller - Anterior Tibialis Start Position
Anterior tibialis exercise - start position
Calves and foam roller - Anterior Tibialis End Position
Anterior tibialis exercise - end position

For more articles on stretching and exercise, please check our Activities and Performance page. Also, if you are ready for building your calf muscles, please see Exercise Guide to Curvy Calves.  

Kim Hoffmann is a certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist based in Auckland. She also specialises in women’s health and fitness by taking into consideration the menstrual cycle and hormones and implementing them in different workout plans. The workout methods and routines include free weights, suspension straps and boxing, as well as strength training and high intensity.

Kim’s passion is helping people move better and improve their quality of life. She helps men and women of all ages achieve their goals and also offers online classes and consultations. You can see more of Kim at Snatch Fitness.

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