No matter how fast or slow you’re running, your calf muscles play a huge role in propelling you forward! And if they’re tight… Well, they can cause a bit of trouble when it comes to your running.
How to treat tight calf muscles is possibly one of the most valuable things for a runner to know! Stay on top of these babies, and you’ll be surprised at how much your running improves – and how much more you’ll actually enjoy your runs.
Here are our favorite stretches and other exercises for easing calf tightness to keep them ready for action.
How Do You Know If You Have Tight Calf Muscles?
Tightness isn’t the only symptom you might feel. In fact, most people don’t feel like their calves are “tight.” Instead, they might experience one or a few of the following symptoms:
- Pain in the lower back leg.
- Pain behind the knee.
- Cramps in the calf that come and go.
- Swelling in the lower back leg area.
- Tingling or numbness in the same area.
- Difficulty running, walking, or standing on your toes.
- “Heaviness” in your calves.
- Reduced mobility in the ankle.
- Chronic plantar fasciitis, heel or arch pain.
Because the calves are connected to the heel and the back of the knee, tight calves can cause pain both in the foot and the knee… Sometimes, before you even feel pain in the calf muscles themselves!
What Causes Tight Calf Muscles?
Tight calf muscles are, unfortunately, quite common. Here are the usual culprits—one of them is likely to be the reason.
If you’ve been running too much without enough rest or upped your mileage or intensity recently, this could be behind your calf muscle woes.
Your muscles most likely haven’t managed to catch up to your new level of exercise, especially since the calves take on a lot of that vibration every time you run. So they’re pretty easy to injure if you build up mileage too fast.
Your Foot Biomechanics
Overpronators and supinators will likely struggle more with calf pain than runners with neutral feet. Why? When your foot rolls too much inward or outward, it ends up placing strain on the calf muscles as they’re pulled or stretched. This leads right to the next possible reason for your sore calves…
Poor Footwear Choices
If you’re an overpronator or underpronator, you should wear shoes that provide enough support for your arch. The purpose of stability shoes for overpronators is to enhance the support under your foot and stop that calf-tugging rolling motion.
And then there’s the cushioning. If you’ve been donning the same pair of shoes for as long as you can remember and the cushioning has fallen flat, it’s probably not absorbing shock any longer.
This means your calves are taking on a LOT more impact than they should. Unsupportive and worn-out footwear is the second most common reason behind calf pains and problems.
Poor Running Form
How confident are you in your running form? If your form is off, your calves may take a lot more strain than usual, leading to injury. This is usually a result of a “stiff torso”—keeping your core too tight during the running motion and not twisting it slightly as you run.
Without core activation and motion, your calves may take over a lot of the “springing” motion to propel you forward. Over time, this can place a lot of unnecessary strain on the calves, causing them to become tight and tense.
Yes, dehydration can cause your calves to tighten and become painful. In most cases, this has to do with a lack of fluid, causing an electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to painful cramps.
Often, dehydration is the root cause, but the actual reason becomes sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium deficiencies caused by a fluid imbalance.
Do Tight Calves Affect Your Running?
Yes! Tight calves can make it difficult to run comfortably, but they can also harm other important body parts that play a big role in running.
Your calf muscles are connected to the Achilles, which is connected to the heel bone and the plantar fascia. On the other end, it’s connected behind the knee, just on the outside of the femur bone.
Most often, tight calves impact the feet rather than the knee. Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and general pain can arise due to tense calves… and try running with sore tendons or a tight plantar fascia!
Even if you do run through the pain, there’s a high likelihood that your running form will be affected. When your calves are tight, they can restrict the ankle’s range of motion, so your stride may be compromised and end up being shorter than usual.
If your tight calf muscles are causing you pain in the Achilles or plantar fascia, you may inadvertently twist or turn your feet or lower legs in unnatural ways to ease the pain.
Losing your form means you won’t perform as effectively because your power, strength, and speed won’t be there, either because it hurts to run properly or because you move differently than usual. You’ll be more likely to injure yourself as well.
Here are some more specific things that can happen when you choose to run with tight calf muscles.
Reduced Shock Absorption
Your arch and your calves are like your body’s shocks. They take on most of the vibration that comes with hard foot landings, so when your calves are tight… Well, they struggle to absorb that shock properly.
And then there’s the fact that tight calves can tighten the plantar fascia, which means both your arches and your calf muscles are compromised.
Even if you are wearing well-cushioned, supportive shoes, your joints will take on much more stress than usual. If this isn’t fixed early, you’re bound to get injured.
Decreased Range of Motion
When the tight calf pulls on the heel, Achilles, and plantar fascia, everything from the lower leg down tightens.
And when you can’t move your ankle the same way you usually would… Well, it will be harder to perform like you usually do on the road or trails. If you don’t ease up those calves, expect reduced performance.
Reduced Blood Flow
The tighter your calves, the harder it becomes for oxygen-rich blood to flow through the muscles. Oxygen and nutrients are essential for healing and recovery, so the worse your circulation is, the harder it becomes for your muscles to recover after exercise… Or even after a brisk walk.
Along with not-so-great recovery, you may experience things like tingling, cold, or numbness in your feet, as blood doesn’t quite reach them fast enough. As you might imagine, this isn’t super helpful for running.
On top of reduced performance and strange sensations, you’ll be at a higher risk of injury thanks to your niggly calves.
Aside from the impact-induced injuries that are highly likely to happen, it’s also common to change your gait without even realizing it to accommodate your pain points and smaller range of motion.
Which means, ultimately, that you end up compensating for your calves in some way. More strain goes to the knee, ankle, Achilles, or feet in general. And that just leads to more pain, more stiffness, and less happiness… So get those tight calves treated ASAP.
Treating Tight Calf Muscles
So you’ve discovered your calves are working against you. Here are some of the best ways to treat them.
R.I.C.E Method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)
Rest, rest, and rest are the best ways to ease a tight calf muscle. Continue running through it, and you’ll only make it tighter… But make sure you’re complementing your rest with cold therapy, compression gear, and elevating the calf.
RICE will get you back on your feet and ease the pain. We recommend resting your calves as much as possible for 2 to 3 days—over a weekend is ideal, where you can be off your feet for hours at a time.
Gentle Stretching Exercises
Once you’ve rested your calves for a few days, you can start incorporating gentle calf stretches to release those locked-up muscles. Here are a few of the best to do, and they’re all pretty easy to add to your daily routine.
Standing Calf Stretch (Wall Push)
All you need to give your calf a serious stretch is a wall. Stand a few feet away from it, both hands on the wall around chest to shoulder height. Step one foot backward and push your heel into the ground, feeling the stretch in your calf as you do so.
Bend your front leg just slightly to increase the stretch in the back leg. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and then switch legs. You can do 4 to 5 of these at a time, and they’re easy to do any time you feel a bit of stiffness and want to loosen them up.
Bent-Knee Wall Stretch
This stretch is very similar to the one above. One small difference takes it from focusing on the gastrocnemius muscle to the soleus muscle—the “hidden” calf muscle.
Follow the same steps as you did above. Instead of keeping your back leg straight, bend it at the knee just a little, but keep that heel firmly pressed into the ground.
You’ll feel the stretch, but you should notice it more specifically in the lower part of the calf, and it may feel “deeper” than usual.
Seated Towel Calf Stretch
You can use a towel, shirt, blanket, or anything similar for this stretch. Sit on the floor with your legs extended fully in front of you.
Throw your wrap of choice around the ball of your foot—you can do both feet simultaneously, but doing one at a time is a little more effective.
Keep your leg straight and pull the towel or shirt towards you until you feel the burn of the stretch in your calf muscle. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, switch feet, and repeat 4 to 5 times on each leg.
Downward Facing Dog
This might seem like a yoga move with a funny name, but trust us… This gives those calves a serious stretch. Start in a plank position, on your hands instead of your forearms.
Raise your hips and move them backward, pressing your heels into the ground at the same time. Don’t be tempted to lift your heels—keep them down, and you’ll experience a calf stretch like you’ve never had before.
Calf Stretch with a Step
Find a small step to use for this stretch. Stand with the balls of your feet on the step and your heels hanging off the edge. You may have to balance yourself by holding onto a nearby wall.
Slowly and carefully lower your heels below the step. There’s no mistaking the stretch in the calves here—hold it for up to 10 seconds and then come back up, or simply get off the step.
Foam rolling your calves can help. Use a wide foam roller with a smooth surface. Place it on the floor—or on a yoga mat—sit on the mat or floor in front of it, and rest your calf on it.
Lift yourself with your hands and allow your calf to place pressure on the foam roller. Gently move yourself back and forth over the foam roller, rolling the calf from just below the knee to just above the Achilles.
Keep in mind that foam rolling is great for tight calves, but not so great for injured calves. Make sure you know your calf muscle isn’t injured before rolling.
If you don’t have a foam roller, you can simply massage the calf muscle with your hands, or ask someone else to. This can be handy for finding particularly tight or knotty calf parts and releasing those trigger points.
Physical therapy is an option for chronic tight calves that you can’t seem to release on your own. A therapist will be able to work on your calves to release tension and may be able to give you at-home exercises and stretches to keep them supple and loose.
How to Prevent Tight Calf Muscles
Once your calves have eased up and you can get back to running, it’s a great idea to take some preventative measures to prevent it from happening again. They’re easy steps but can make a massive difference.
Warming Up and Cooling Down
We know… We tell you in almost every article. But we can’t overstate the importance of warming up and cooling down before training runs or races.
Your warm-up is like waking up those muscles so they can prepare for what’s coming. It gets your heart up a little, blood flowing through the muscles, bringing oxygen and nutrients to fuel them for the upcoming activity.
Just this step can go a long way toward relieving tightness in your calves. But don’t forget the cool-down—while not quite as important as the warm-up, it allows your muscles to relax after their workout and gives you a bit of time for metabolic waste to start leaving the body.
Spend 5 minutes warming up and 5 minutes cooling down. That’s all it takes; it could be the best thing you do for your calf health.
Gradually Increase in Intensity
Chill out a little with your training. Progress is necessary, but there’s no need to speed ahead. Resist the urge to push yourself too hard and hold back on increasing your intensity, mileage, or frequency too quickly.
Increase one element at a time and do so gradually. If you want to increase your distance, do so by 5 to 10 percent per week and keep your intensity and frequency the same.
If your goal is to boost your pace, increase it by a few percent weekly and keep your frequency and mileage the same. Whatever your goal, stick to changing one thing at a time, and in small increments.
Wear Supportive Footwear
Get your shoes right! Overpronators, wear stability shoes. Underpronators, find something that offers lateral support. All runners choose a shoe with adequate cushioning that eases joint pain and impact.
Work on your calf strength by doing calf-specific exercises. Calf raises—weighted or unweighted—and toe-walks are two great examples of calf-strengthening exercises. Do them regularly and your calves will gain strength.
Stretch Your Calves
Stretch your calves often, especially if you’re prone to tight calf muscles. Use the stretches mentioned above, and get in the habit of doing them in the morning when you get up and in the evening before going to sleep.
Remove the dehydration element entirely by staying well-hydrated. Keep a bottle of water close by at all times and drink often. Remember, coffee can be a diuretic, so we recommend plain water. You can flavor it with some fruit if you don’t like the taste.
Include Cross-Training to Avoid Overuse
Cross-training is a great way to give your “running muscles” a break. If running contributes to your sore, tight calves, switch out a few of your runs with calf-friendly cross-training.
Swimming is an excellent choice. The elliptical could also work well, and rowing might be an option. Be careful—cycling, jumping rope, and stair climber could make your calves feel worse.