Physiotherapy for runners - calf pain exercises

While gyms have been closed, there has been a dramatic increase in people running for exercise. Here at our Newmarket clinic we’ve also noticed an increase in the number of people contacting us with calf pain and the two are definitely linked.

The types on injuries we have been treating range from muscle cramp which comes on during a run, to those with persistent calf pain preventing running at all. Almost everyone wants to know how whether they should continue running through pain and how to stop them from hurting, so I’m going to answer these two questions in this blog.

 Should I run if my calf muscles are painful?

You can potentially continue to run, even if your calf muscles are sore, depending on the level of pain.

If your condition is mild and your symptoms settle quickly after you finish your run without significant residual pain during your everyday activities, then you might step back the distance or time for a couple of weeks and build back up again more gradually. A careful warm up and use of a foam roller after each run will help and you might want to consider having a couple of sports massages to help things along too.

If your pain is severe, you are aware of pain when you are not running or you are having to change your normal running or walking pattern because of your symptoms, then I’d recommend taking a break of 2 – 3 weeks from running (maybe more depending on the severity) to settle down any sensitivity and build up very gradually. A physiotherapist would be able to help you with a return to running programme, alongside some simple strength and conditioning exercises. In the meantime, switch to cycling or swimming to keep up your fitness levels.

 How can I stop my calves from hurting when I run?

Foam rolling may provide relief if this can be tolerated without pain and stretching your calves will give some short term pain relief. I would try dropping your heels over the edge of a step for up to 30 seconds, 5 times a day. However, if you suspect a muscle or Achilles Tendon tear, please seek advice before stretching out like this.

For runners a strength training programme of corrective exercises is vital, as for many people calf pain is a sign of muscular overload.

Depending on the way you walk, you will put between 1 to 3 times your body weight through your foot and ankle with each step. When you run this increases to between 3 to 10 times your body weight. Put simply, your legs may not be strong enough to handle to amount of work you are asking them to do and you will need to strengthen up the muscles which propel you forward when you run to stop your calfs from hurting.

Try these three exercises, which are ideal for runners:

Exercise 1 – Heel raises with knees straight and knees bent

Strengthening your calf muscles in both positions (knees straight and knees bent) is vital because, while running, you push off with your knees both straight and bent at different points.

Exercise 2 – standing on 1 leg

Improving your balance and coordination means for more efficiency when you run and will reduce the load on your calf muscles.

Exercise 3 – Hamstring bridge

Your hamstrings cross the back of your knee joint and can be a source of calf pain, so building up these muscles is also important.

 The routine

With exercises 1, and 3, start off doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions and gradually build up so you can do 3 sets of 30 repetitions before you progress to the next level (see below).

Exercise 2 – do this as often as possible by building it into your day (waiting for the kettle to boil or brushing your teeth).

Complete all these exercises every other day, giving your muscles time to adapt to the demand of the programme. Exercises 1 and 3 can also be used as part of your warm up for a run.

The next level

Exercises 1 and 3 – start off completing these exercise with both feet on the floor and when they become easier, you can progress to completing them on one leg at a time

A couple of final thoughts …

If your pain is severe and your calf is swollen and warm, then please seek immediate medical help as this may be a sign of a blood clot.

All the best and keep on running,

The Physiofit team