Your calf muscles, which include the more superficial gastrocnemius muscle and the deeper, more inferior soleus muscle, perform a great deal of the work of propelling you along as you run, particularly at faster paces or when you're running uphill. The stress of some 700 to 800 push-offs per mile on each leg can take its toll in the form of mild to severe soreness or even muscle tears. There are a variety of causes of chronic calf pain in active people.
A calf muscle strain can occur suddenly or as a result of overuse. The resulting pain is usually dull or achy, but in some cases is stabbing or sharp. Causes of calf strains include not warming up properly for a run, dehydration, failing to stretch, electrolyte disturbances or an overly ambitious increase in the amount you're running. The first order of treatment business is icing the affected calf and taking anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium under the supervision of a physician. Fitting your shoes with custom orthotics may help prevent the problem from returning. Be sure to check with your physician to make sure you have not torn rather than merely strained the muscle, as a tear can take up to three months to fully heal.
The Achilles tendon connects your heel bone to both your soleus and gastrocnemius muscles, which dovetail into a single unit as they course toward the foot. Pain at the top of this tendon is therefore virtually indistinguishable from true calf pain, and inflammation of the Achilles is one of the most common injuries in sports involving running of any sort.
Factors that can contribute to Achilles pain include lots of sprinting, rapid mileage increases, too much running uphill and worn-out running shoes. Although a bad case of tendinitis can leave you feeling sore even while you're at rest, you'll most commonly feel the worst pain when pushing off. Treatment includes rest, very gentle stretching, calf-strengthening exercises, anti-inflammatory medications and, in especially stubborn cases, a special boot that immobilizes the Achilles.
This is a comparatively rare but very debilitating and painful condition that numerous top track athletes -- among them multi-time Olympic distance runner Mary Decker -- have had to confront. Since its main cause is the overdevelopment of the calf muscles, its prevalence among elites and hard-core runners is no surprise. Compartment syndrome occurs because of the inelastic nature of the fibrous sheath surrounding the calves. As the muscles hypertrophy, the sheath compresses them to a greater and greater extent, putting tremendous pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the area. Pain from this malady increases with running and abates when you stop. If you turn out to have compartment syndrome, you will most likely require surgery to cure it.
If you insist on having a calf problem, this is probably your best choice. Cramps are one of the most common causes of recurring calf pain in runners and other active women. Usually, they strike suddenly and without apparent provocation, with the root cause most often being muscle acute or chronic muscle fatigue, dehydration, or low potassium or other electrolyte disturbances. Gently stretching the calves both before and after running is a good way to prevent the onset of calf cramps. Strengthening exercises such as one-legged or two-legged heel raises are also helpful in this area.
L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.