Tender calves are just one of the many unpleasant side effects that can hit when you restart your running routine. When left unchecked, those sore calves can make your next run uncomfortable — or even downright painful.
Thankfully, running-related calf soreness is (usually) a simple fix. Here are some of the most common culprits, according to Colorado-based running coach Jenni Nettik.
One of the main reasons runners develop sore calves shortly after they start running again is they overcorrect their foot strike: “They’ve heard that a heel strike is bad, and they shift to a forefoot strike,” Nettik says. When you use a forefoot strike, you end up isolating the impact of each step on your toes and the balls of your feet, which puts more strain on your calves, as well as the small, fragile bones in your toes.
Instead, aim for a midfoot strike, as this strike pattern allows the arches of your feet to flatten a bit when you land. “Think of the arch as a bridge,” Nettik says, “it’s supposed to flatten out a little bit when you hit the ground.”
While you don’t want to land on your heels, you do want your full foot to eventually make contact with the ground as you move through each step.
According to Nettik, many runners develop sore calves because they try to run faster than their current fitness level allows. Any time you run fast you shift a greater load onto your forefoot. As you’ve already learned, that places more strain on your calves.
“The safest way to run is slowly with a quick cadence,” Nettik says. “So, when somebody’s first getting started, not worrying about pace will keep their body happier.”
Also, build your base fitness by running for time, instead of distance. “A good goal would be to be able to run 30 minutes three times a week when you’re developing your base,” Nettik says. You can work up to running 30 minutes nonstop, or use a run-walk scheme. The point is to get comfortable with moving at a conversational pace for 30 minutes, Nettik says.
From there, you can shift to a distance goal (Nettik suggests 3 miles three times per week), and then introduce some speedwork.
Like speedwork, running hills also stresses the calves. “When you run uphill, you shift further forward onto your feet, which makes the exercise more calf-dominant,” Nettik explains.
If you live in a hilly area, or you tackled some steep inclines on your last run and now your calves are on fire, try to run on a flat surface next time. You shouldn’t avoid hills by any means (here are just a few benefits of running hills), but be sure you’re balancing those hills with flat-surface running while your body adjusts. Listen to your body and incorporate more hills when you’re ready.
Finally, your calves could signal a weak link further up the chain: “Most of your stability should be coming from your glutes, and if you’re not using those, some of the smaller muscles like the calves can get overworked,” Nettik says.
To ensure your glutes are turned on and firing when they’re needed, Nettik recommends stretching out the hip flexors and performing a few glute exercises before every run. She often instructs her clients to hold a hip flexor stretch for 3–5 minutes per side, foam roll any problem areas and perform a few glute-focused moves. Try these:
PRE-RUN GLUTE ROUTINE
Glute Bridge, hold for 30 seconds
Monster Walk, 10 steps to each side and 10 steps to the back
Side leg lifts, 5–10 reps per side