If you’ve been noticing tight calves during your runs and feeling them when you head up a hill, you’re not alone. Most veteran runners can recall at least one time they’ve found themselves on the side of the trail wincing and rubbing a calf to alleviate a cramp.
While there’s no simple solution, there are a few ways to loosen your calves and lessen your chances of tightening up at a pivotal moment in your run.
Jaclyn Fulop, a licensed physical therapist and runner, says tight calf muscles are a common problem for runners, but often, the root cause is lower on the body. “Tight calves can occur due to biomechanical dysfunction such as hallux rigidus [stiffness/rigidity in the big toe], the shape of your foot’s arch, repetitive stress, weakness or improper shoe wear,” she explains.
If your shoes are in good shape and you’re still having problems, consider terrain: Have you recently shifted to running more hills? Uphill running can put a lot more pressure on your calves than flat miles, and you may not be recruiting your other muscles to help alleviate the burden. Focus on using your glutes to get up the hill. You may also be spending more time on the balls of your feet as you tiptoe your way up an incline; instead, let your heel drop occasionally to allow your calf muscle to get a bit more release. Finally, consider power-hiking, which allows you to drop your heels more naturally, and in truly steep terrain, won’t even drop your overall pace by much.
Research has shown dehydration can lead to tight muscles — and if your calves are already tense, being a quart low on your daily water intake can shift them from annoying to painful territory. Aim to drink at least 64 ounces of water every day, more if you’re sweating profusely during a workout — and add an electrolyte tab or pinch of salt to a few of those glasses to maintain sodium, magnesium and potassium levels.
Practice basic running protocols with extreme care: In the summer, any cramping and tightness can be exacerbated by dehydration, so make sure you’re starting runs fully hydrated, and continuing to sip as you go, especially as runs last longer than an hour.
In any weather conditions, a slow and steady warmup is key to avoiding instant tightness in your muscles as you start to up the pace. Take a few minutes before each run to walk, do activation stretches like lunges (focus on the back leg for a greater calf stretch) and gentle hops on your toes.
After each run, give your body a few minutes to cool down by walking and doing some stretches. Also, consider getting a piece of gear that does the stretching for you — for example, a Strassburg sock gently pulls your toes toward your shin to stretch your calves while you sleep. For those who use standing desks, a foam wedge might be your new best friend. Use it while standing to get a gentle calf stretch while putting in no effort.
READ MORE > DYNAMIC STRETCHING WARMUP FOR RUNNERS
Stretching — dynamic and static — can help, but Fulop recommends adding static stretches post-run rather than beforehand. “Stretching is important because it increases your joint range of motion, which improves balance and keeps the muscles working more efficiently,” she explains. A good way to stretch your calves is during your workout: Walking or running uphill is a great calf activator and naturally forces your muscles to stretch while you’re heading up.
You can do the staircase stretch slowly, but there’s also a benefit to doing it faster, in a pumping motion. Since your calves are so dense, excess fluid and blood can pool up in those muscles and might benefit from getting flushed out. So, add a quick set of calf pumps to your next post-run cooldown. Aim to do this daily.
Sometimes, hamstring tightness can result in tight calves. If you’re also noticing your hamstrings getting tight or cramped in your run, Fulop recommends adding this stretch.
READ MORE > 6 CALF EXERCISES TO RUN STRONGER AND INJURY-FREE
Erin Taylor, author of “Hit Reset: Revolutionary Yoga for Athletes,” is a fan of the squat, because so many calf stretches involve straight legs, and we don’t activate certain muscles when our knees are bent. Get into a deep squat, with your hands on the floor to stabilize yourself. Come up onto your toes as high as you can, and then drop your heels. Repeat this a few times.
Foam rolling your calves is as important as rolling out your quads and hamstrings. Don’t just give your calf a single swipe — work from your ankle slowly up to your knee, making sure to hit the sides of your calf as well as the back.
Lastly, if your calf cramps don’t resolve regardless of how much you stretch, drink, warmup or switch terrain, it may be time to seek professional help. You may be dealing with some underlying muscle weaknesses in your glutes or hamstrings, and a physical therapist can help diagnose and prescribe exercises to strengthen and ‘activate’ those under-utilized muscles to give your calves a break.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.