For runners, the hamstrings, quads and core get most of the attention. While the calf muscles aren’t as large as other muscle groups, these lower leg muscles play an important role in developing speed, improving your form and helping you stay injury free.
Here’s how you can improve your performance and avoid common running injuries by strengthening and stretching your calf muscles.
YOUR CALF MUSCLES AND RUNNING
The calf muscles consist of the gastrocnemius and soleus. Together, these two muscles are responsible for pushing off during the toe phase of your foot strike, propelling you up and forward. How strong these muscles are plays an important role in the pace you can maintain over long distances and how long or short your stride is. By developing these muscles, you can improve your power on hills, maintain a quicker cadence for better running form, and boost your speed by improving the efficiency of your stride.
On the other hand, when these muscles are weak or tight, more stress is placed on the Achilles, leading to injuries like tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, calf strains and even hip and hamstring injuries due to poor form or associated changes in your normal running mechanics.
While you can do toe raises off the edge of your stairs or with a set of dumbbells at the gym, the dynamic motion of running places a unique amount of stress on the calf muscles. Because of this, dynamic strengthening exercises that simulate the running motion are a good way to get these muscles used to the same kind of impact forces required out on the road.
These three calf exercises help prevent fatigue on long runs while also developing the power you’ll need to improve your stride and cadence.
A-SKIPS (HIGH KNEES)
This is an excellent exercise to do just before your workout as part of a warmup that can also be used as a drill to help improve your form. In addition to strengthening the calf muscles, it will also help promote proper knee lift and a more efficient foot strike during your stride.
The move: Begin a skipping motion, raising your left knee up to waist height while you push off the ground with your right foot, keeping your right leg straight. As you land, alternate by lifting the right knee to waist height. Stay on your toes during the skip as much as possible, concentrating on landing on your forefoot/midfoot. Don’t forget to swing your arms opposite the lifted leg. Complete 2–3 sets of 25 meters.
Because you stay on your toes, jumping rope is an excellent way to build sport-specific muscular endurance in the calf muscles.
The move: There’s no way around it — if you want to get better at jumping rope, you have to practice. Start by keeping both feet together, staying on your toes as you jump. As you get better and can do it for a few minutes try alternating feet so you jump over the rope with only one foot at a time, which can closely resemble the running motion.
DUMBBELL TIP-TOE WALK
Adding weight helps build power, which helps sustain proper form during long runs.
The move: Hold a pair of kettlebells or dumbbells by your side. Walk for 40–60 seconds on your toes (heels off the ground), keeping your back straight, shoulders back and your head up. Rest for one minute and repeat 3–4 times. Increase weight as necessary.
Keeping your calf muscles loose and limber after a run helps prevent muscle soreness and reduces your chance of injury. This also ensures you have full ankle range of motion and prevents stiffness in the Achilles prior to your next workout.
This yoga pose is a great stretch for runners because it lengthens multiple muscle groups. In addition to stretching your gastrocnemius (the calf muscle that sits higher on the leg just below the knee), this pose also targets your hamstrings, hips, lower back and shoulders.
The move: Begin on all fours with your knees on the ground and your feet about shoulder’s width apart. Draw your chest toward your knees as you lift up, letting your hips rise while your spine forms a straight line all the way through the shoulder blades and neck. Avoid letting your head drop, sink your heels into the ground as much as possible, and push your thighs back so your legs are straight. Hold for 30 seconds before returning to the plank or table-top position. Repeat 3–4 times.
BENT-KNEE CALF STRETCH
While a lot of stretches target the upper calf muscle, this stretch targets the soleus, which sits lower on the leg toward the heel.
The move: Place both hands on the wall and step both feet back. Bring your left leg forward closer to the wall, bending the knee and keeping your foot flat. The right leg should be straight with the heel flat on the floor. Maintaining this position, begin bending the right knee until you feel a stretch on the lower part of your calf muscle toward the heel. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg. Complete 3–4 repetitions on each side.
FOAM ROLLING CALF
A big part of avoiding injuries is keeping your muscles free of tension and working out any sore spots. Foam rolling the calf muscles increases flexibility while helping decrease muscle soreness.
The move: Similar to rolling your hamstrings, sit on the floor with your hands behind you and the foam roller beneath your calf muscle. Start at the lower part of the calf just above the ankle, rolling up to just below the knee. Use your arms to support your body weight as you move back and forth. Lifting your body weight up more helps to relieve pressure, while letting your weight sink into the foam roller gets deeper into the tissue. Do this motion for 30 seconds before switching to the opposite side. Complete 3–4 repetitions on each side.