Nobody likes cutting out of a run early from calf soreness. The modern running environment, however, can often lead to impact-related soreness and injury, which can prevent you from going as far as you want on your early morning circuit. Stress-related injury is a preventable issue that most runners experience. Keep yourself moving by addressing these injuries and correcting your form, which can keep your calf muscles happy.
Anatomy of the Calf
The largest muscle on the calf, located on the back of the shin, is the gastrocnemius. This outer muscle provides most of the muscular strength to your ankle, which pivots the foot to provide propulsion. The gastrocnemius is connected at its base to the smaller soleus muscle, which attaches to the Achilles tendon. Soreness can occur in either muscle or simultaneously, but the most noticeable pain comes from the gastrocnemius since it makes up the majority of muscle mass in your calf.
The process of building muscle through exercise involves a process of tearing and healing over time, which can often be a source of mild soreness. As you run, the myofibrils or fibers of your muscle tear, and satellite cells on the outside of the muscle gather over the site of the trauma. These cells quickly rebuild the damaged muscle, adding more muscle mass as the trauma heals. Exercise that causes your muscles to undergo this process can leave you feeling sore until the healing process completes.
Running Form and Calf Pain
Your stride can have a profound effect on the amount of trauma your calf muscle receives over the course of a run. While some tearing is normal, the additional damage from impact can tear the muscle further, requiring a longer recovery time and generating more muscle pain during your run. As you step, allow your heel and forefoot to contact the ground simultaneously in a mid-foot strike. This allows impact to be distributed through the arc of your foot, which prevents the heel or calf from the jarring effects of impact. A heel strike sends the full force of your step into the muscles in your calf, which can cause pain during your run and lead to damage.
Persistent Calf Pain
Persistent pain during a run, even with the appropriate stride and recovery time, can be an indication of a more serious injury. A substantial tear or pull in your calf muscle, often referred to as a strain, can require a longer healing period. Refrain from running if you have prolonged soreness and pain, and consult a doctor or sports clinic to determine if there's a substantial injury to your gastrocnemius that is causing the pain. As always, listen to your body and you'll have a more successful pain-free run.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.