How to Treat and Prevent Sore Calves From Running

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Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned runner, experiencing sore calves after a run is a common issue. Your calves are crucial for running, so it’s normal for them to feel achy or cramped, especially after a challenging run or if you’re returning to running after a break.

Luckily, understanding the cause of your calf pain is the first step towards prevention.

In this article, we’ll guide you through simple, effective strategies to both treat and prevent sore calves, ensuring your runs are more comfortable and enjoyable.

Is It Normal to Have Sore Calves After Running?

Calf pain is a frequent issue for runners and can arise from several causes. These muscles play a key role in your running stride and contribute to different phases of your gait.

The biggest muscle in the calf—the gastrocnemius—flexes to lift your heel off the ground. During push-off, this muscle provides the power to lift your feet and body off the ground. It’s also responsible for your knee bending and extending.

The smaller calf muscle—the soleus—plays an important role in stabilizing the ankle joint. The calves also take on a lot of force on every step, as the impact of each step vibrates through the muscle.

Small changes in form or terrain or even not warming up properly can result in calf pain after a run. But calf pain after a run can also result from DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness caused by inflammation in response to micro-tears in the muscles while you run. This is more common in beginners or runners who have taken a break.

If you’re a more experienced runner who doesn’t experience DOMS much, your calf pain might be a sign of poor form or injury.

What Causes Sore Calves in Runners?

Various factors can cause painful calves, particularly right after a run. Identifying the root cause is crucial for effective treatment.

Overuse or Increased Training Intensity

If you push your muscles too hard during one run—for example, doing a stair workout or something hard on the calves—you might feel extra stiff and sore in your calves the following day.

But even if you haven’t pushed yourself hard, not giving your muscles enough time to rest between runs might lead to cramps or muscle soreness due to overtraining.

Improper Footwear

Wearing running shoes that don’t support your feet can cause sore calves. If your feet aren’t supported, your joints may move out of their normal range of motion—for example, overpronating—placing strain on the muscles.

Wearing shoes with insufficient cushioning can worsen calf pain. When your shoes don’t absorb the impact properly, the vibrations from each step directly affect your muscles. This lack of cushioning can lead to sore calves immediately after your run and the next day.

Running on Hard Surfaces

Running on hard, unforgiving surfaces like asphalt and concrete can increase the impact on your feet and legs, causing calf pain. This is worse when paired with shoes that don’t offer enough cushioning.

Tight Muscles

Calf pain isn’t always caused by tightness in the calf muscle. Sometimes, tight quads, hamstrings, or even a tight Achilles can pull on the calf muscle and cause “referred pain.”

Poor Running Form

Running with incorrect form can place excess strain on the calf muscles, causing them to be stiff and sore after a run. Overstriding is one of the biggest form problems leading to calf pain.

The further out in front of your body that your foot lands when you run, the more strain your calf muscles take during the stride as they work hard to bring your body weight forward from behind your outstretched leg.

Changing Your Shoes

When switching from a shoe with a high-drop to a low or zero-drop shoe, you might experience sore calves as your weight is distributed slightly differently.

High-drop running shoes are your classic running shoes where your heel is raised higher than your toes. Low or zero-drop shoes reduce the heel height, resulting in a stride that resembles running barefoot.

Shoes with a higher drop reduce the load on the calves and the Achilles tendon, whereas low-drop shoes place more load on the calves.

If you’re not used to the position of your feet and legs in low-drop shoes, you might experience calf pain for a week or two as your body adjusts. However, it should subside once your muscles get used to it.

Dehydration or Electrolyte Imbalance

Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, with the calves particularly prone to this issue. Often, it’s not just a shortage of water that leads to these cramps, but an imbalance in electrolytes.

Electrolyte imbalances can happen even if you aren’t dehydrated. You might replace lost fluids during a run, but you might be susceptible to cramping calves if you aren’t replacing lost electrolytes.

Muscle Strain or Injury

The calves, bearing a significant amount of body weight during each stride, are prone to strain. Sudden calf pain during exercise might indicate an injury, rather than just delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or a typical cramp.

Lack of Warm-Up or Cool Down

Heading into a run without warming your muscles up properly can make them susceptible to injury as they might not move through their full range of motion easily. It can be easy to push them too far before you even realize it.

Cooling down allows your muscles time to flush out metabolic waste that can cause pain after a run. Skip it and you may find yourself with worse DOMS due to lactic acid buildup!

How to Treat Sore Calves From Running

Take these steps to ease calf pain and help them heal.

Rest

When your calf muscles are sore, the first thing to do is give them a rest. You don’t have to avoid all physical activity, but it may be a good idea to avoid high-impact activity that would place more strain on them.

That could mean having a few days off from running and opting for swimming, cycling, or another low-impact cardio option instead.

Ice

Applying ice or a cold compress to your painful legs can reduce inflammation and lower pain levels. Wrap a cold pack in a towel before placing it on your calves to avoid ice burn.

You can apply ice several times a day, for 15 to 20 minutes. Make sure to give it at least an hour between sessions to allow your skin and muscles to warm up again.

Compression

A compression calf sleeve is an excellent recovery tool. When dealing with sore calf muscles, a compression sleeve could help improve circulation and reduce swelling.

If you don’t have a compression sleeve, you can wrap a bandage around your calf to compress the muscle. Wrap it tightly enough to provide a light massaging compression, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation in your foot.

Elevation

Once you’re home, lying down and elevating your legs above the level of your heart can reduce swelling and ease pain in the legs. This is especially helpful when calf pain is caused by fluid accumulation in the lower legs.

Stretching

Regularly stretching your calf muscles can help keep them loose and pain-free. Stretching should be part of your warm-up and cool-dwon routines, but you can perform these stretches any time during the day to ease up stiff, sore calves.

Most stretches can be held for 15 to 30 seconds on each leg and repeated as many times as you’d like. Be gentle and don’t push your muscles too hard.

Calf Stretch

Face the wall, place your hands on it, and take a step backwards. Flatten both heels on the ground and bend your front knee. You should feel the stretch in your calves.

Towel Stretch

Sit on the floor and stretch your legs out in front of you. Using a towel or a resistant band, loop it around the ball of one foot and gently pull your foot towards you. Make sure your heel and knee don’t lift off the floor.

Massage

Massage is a great way to stimulate blood flow, ease muscle tension, and relieve pain. You can massage your own calf muscles or ask someone to do it for you.

Use the palm, the knuckles, and the fingers to massage the calf muscles. You’ll be able to apply good pressure with the palm and get into the smaller knots with the knuckles.

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling could be a better option for some people, especially if you don’t have someone to help massage your calves.

Every runner should have a foam roller. For calves, sit on a mat and extend your legs in front of you. Place the foam roller on the mat underneath one of your calf muscles.

Lift yourself off the ground using your hands behind you, and lean into the foam roller with your body weight.

Shift yourself forward so that your calf runs along the foam roller right to under the knee, and then shift yourself backwards until the foam roller reaches just above your ankle.

How to Prevent Sore Calves From Running

Prevention is better than cure! Here are a few easy steps to take to try and prevent sore calves from running.

Always Start With a Good Warm-Up

Warming up is crucial. Before you start, do light cardio and dynamic stretching to get the blood flowing through those muscles.

This warms them up and prepares them to go through the activity and through their full range of motion, with less chance of injury.

Gradual Increase in Intensity

Increase mileage, intensity, or time slowly. Follow the 10% rule—increase only one of those factors—mileage, time, or intensity—by 10% at a maximum every week.

This will help you to progress steadily, without pushing yourself so hard that you’re likely to overtrain and injure yourself.

Correct Running Form

Poor form can place a lot of excess stress on your calves. Fixing your form can make a huge difference to your calf pain, as it reduces that pressure and allows your calf muscles to move through their full range of motion without being pushed too far.

Good Running Shoes

Wearing running shoes that support your feet can go a long way towards easing up calf pain. Your feet will be held in a neutral position, preventing them from moving out of their regular range of motion and placing strain on the calves.

The shoes you choose should also have adequate cushioning. This ensures that impact is absorbed into the cushioning rather than taking its toll on your joints, muscles, and tissues, including the calf muscles.

A higher-drop shoe will also relieve strain on the Achilles. If your pain only began after you switched to lower-drop shoes, switching back to high-drop shoes—10 to 12 mm—can make a big difference.

Cross-Training

Running is a high-impact sport. Incorporating cross-training into your routine can help keep your fitness levels up, but take a load off the lower legs, easing stiffness and pain. Choose low-impact activities like cycling, swimming, or elliptical.

Hydration and Electrolytes

Hydration is essential. Ensure you remain hydrated throughout the day, not just when running. If you’re going to be running for longer than an hour, you should also carry electrolyte tablets with you.

Post-Run Stretching

Your cool-down is as important as your warm-up. Cooling down should include static stretching, which gives the muscles time to flush out lactic acid that can contribute to post-run calf muscle pain.

Prioritize Rest

Rest days are crucial. You should have at least one full rest day per week, and one cross-training day, so two days of rest from running. Lack of rest can lead to overtraining injuries, so don’t skimp on it!

Terrain and Training Variety

Mix up hilly runs with routes on flatter terrain to build strength in your calves. Switching it up can help distribute your body weight more evenly, reducing pain. But running more often on rougher terrain, like trails, can also help strengthen your calves.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.