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How To Treat Tight Calf Muscles – Stretches and Other Exercises

When you push yourself hard during a workout, it’s not uncommon to suffer muscle soreness or tightness a couple days afterward. Pushing yourself hard is a key part of hitting your running goals. But having a body that is loose and supple is also important to running well.

Tight muscles, and especially tight calves, can hinder your willingness to go out and really push it on your next track workout or hill session. If you’re dealing with tight calf muscles due to running, you might be wondering how in the world you can loosen them up. This article is for you!

We’ll discuss details about your calf muscles, what tight calves feel like, what causes them, and how to treat them. By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to avoid painful tightness in your calves.

What are Calf Muscles?

Your calf muscles are located on the back of your lower leg. There are actually two different muscles. The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle that looks like a bulge. The soleus is the smaller calf muscle underneath the gastrocnemius.

Calf muscles are used to pull your heels up during jumping, running, or walking to allow you to move forward. You use your two calf muscles, which meet at the Achilles tendon, for any leg or foot motion.

What Do Tight Calves Feel Like?

This can vary from person to person. Typically, you’ll experience pain and sometimes tightness in the back of your lower leg. The pain could be dull or sharp. Tight calves can be treated at home, but if you have additional symptoms beyond just pain, see a medical professional.

For example, symptoms like swelling, a weird color beneath the skin, tingling, or warmth or coolness may indicate a more serious condition that you won’t be able to treat yourself.

If you continue to run on tight calves – even if you’re not experiencing severe symptoms – you could cause more serious injuries. A tear in the calf muscle is the last thing you want.

What Causes Tight Calf Muscles?

Tight calves can be caused by a variety of things, so you’ll want to figure out what is most likely for you.

Muscle Cramps

Most often when you experience tight calves it’s due to muscle cramps. These can last anywhere from a few seconds to much longer. Cramps can be caused when you start exercising more than usual, or are doing different exercises than usual.

You’re also a more likely candidate for cramps if you’re dehydrated. Low electrolytes and existing muscle injuries also increase your risk. In some cases, the cause of cramps can be serious like kidney failure, diabetes, or alcoholism.

If you know that you are getting enough hydration and minerals and aren’t dealing with any muscle injuries but are still experiencing cramps, you might want to see if something more serious is causing them so that you can address it immediately.

Muscle Strains

Another common culprit of tight calves is muscle strains. There are a variety of causes, but most of them stem from using your muscles too much or in the wrong way. This is particularly true for runners. 

You’ll know that you have a muscle strain the second it happens. You’ll suddenly experience pain and have a limited range of movement. You can often treat this at home, but if it’s a serious strain, it can cause a tear in your calf muscle that requires medical attention.

Achilles Tendonitis

Since the calf muscles come together at the Achilles tendon, you can also experience pain in your calves due to Achilles tendonitis, which is caused by overusing or straining your Achilles tendon.

Symptoms of Achilles tendonitis include tight calves, swelling, and inflammation of your tendon, making it hard to move when flexing your foot. Simply resting, icing, compressing, and elevating should help in most causes.

Landing on Your Forefoot

If you land on your forefoot or midfoot rather than heel-striking, your muscles and tendons will be what absorbs the load. If your muscles aren’t strong enough, though, you’ll injure yourself through a calf strain or Achilles tendonopathy.

This is common when switching to minimal or zero-drop running shoes. It’s why you are often encouraged to ease into this style of running when you buy a pair of Altras.

This is especially likely to occur if you overstride and land too far forward on your forefoot. You’ll want to make sure that your foot isn’t too far ahead of your knee. Otherwise, you’ll likely experience calf pain from landing on your forefoot.

Other More Serious Conditions

The four causes we mentioned above are common for runners. But if none of those describe you, your tight calves might be due to something more serious. For example, diabetic peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage that impacts your arms, hands, feet, and yes, legs.

Another serious issue is deep vein thrombosis, which is caused by a blood clot forming in one of your deep veins, including in your calf. If you smoke or sit for long periods of time, you might be a more likely candidate.

Conditions like these require immediate medical attention. If it can’t be explained by another cause, see a doctor about your tight calves.

How Can Runners Treat Tight Calves?

It’s easy to use the RICE (rest, ice, compress, and elevate) method to deal with non-serious calf cramps and strains. That being said, prevention is the best medicine. Try some of these methods first:

Regularly Stretch Calves

Keeping your calf muscles stretched out can help reduce your risk of a strain, so it’s important that you take the time to stretch, especially if you frequently get tight calf muscles.

Standing Wall Stretch

Face a wall and place your hands flat against it. Put one foot in front of the other and bend the leg closest to the wall slightly. Do not let your knee go past the top of your toes. Hold for about 30 seconds with your straight leg firmly pressed into the floor. Repeat on the other side.

Step Calf Raises

Stand on a step and place your forefoot on the edge of the step with your heel hanging off. Carefully drop your heel down and hold for 20-30 seconds. If needed, hold onto the wall or the railing. Repeat on the other side. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do both legs at the same time.

Upside-Down “V” Stretch

Make an upside-down “V” with your body while on all fours. Make sure your knees and elbows are straight. Place one foot behind the ankle on your opposite foot. Lower the heel of the opposite foot as low as you comfortably can. After briefly holding, slowly raise your heel again. Repeat on the other side.

Strengthen Calves

One of the best ways to strengthen your calves is going back to something you used to do in grade school: jump rope. Start small by seeing how many jumps you can do without stopping. You’ll gradually get more coordinated and balanced. Just make sure that you land on your toes.

Another option is to sit on the floor and place an elastic resistance band or a towel around the balls of your feet. Make sure to keep your knees straight and point your feet forward, making sure that the band or towel stays taut.

Use a Foam Roller or Massage Gun

Foam rolling, a massage gun, or even a massage from a professional is a great way to loosen up your muscles if they have been tight. Using a massage gun or foam rolling in the evening while you’re watching TV is a great way to decompress.

Use a Night Splint

Although it might look a little strange, wearing a night splint is a great way to let your calf muscles rest at night. Make sure, though, that the angle isn’t too aggressive so that it doesn’t hurt. You’ll get a gentle stretch as you wear throughout the night.

Stretch with a Calf Stretcher

If you regularly experience tight calf muscles and calf pain, it might be helpful if you purchase a calf stretcher, which will make it easier for you to stretch. There are a variety of options available from angled stretchers to curved stretchers.

Properly Warm Up Before a Run

Finally, one of the best things you can do is to make sure that you properly warm-up before a run. This means taking some time to include dynamic stretching like Frankensteins where you kick up one leg and touch it with the hand on the opposite side.

It’s also helpful to start with 5 minutes of a light jog to warm your legs up before getting to the heart of your workout. You need to get your blood pumping and muscles warm to reduce the likelihood of cramps or strains.

Final Thoughts

Tight calves can be very uncomfortable, and it’s likely that you’re dealing with them because you’re overworking your legs. 

Whether you’re new to running or you’ve been doing it a while, taking time to stretch and warm up, and gradually increase intensity and distance. A few preventative measures and smart training will help ensure that tight calf muscles don’t bother you anymore.

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner
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