Calf Pain From Running? 2 Likely Causes + An Effective Treatment Plan

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Most runners have experienced some form of calf pain from running. Whether it’s a strain, tear, cramp, or just tightness, calf pain can be quite debilitating.

Calf pain is often categorized by pain or discomfort in the gastrocnemius, soleus, or plantaris muscle and can happen during or after running.

Calf pain while running is common, particularly in long-distance endurance runners. In fact, incidence rates are estimated between a staggering 4.5% and 33%.

Previous calf strains are strong predictors of future calf issues, so it is crucial to follow a structured rehabilitation program to recover effectively and reduce the risk of re-occurrence.

In this article, we will provide up-to-date science regarding how to effectively treat and mitigate calf pain from running so that you can get back out on those trails!

In this article, we will discuss the following:

  • Why Do My Calves Hurt While Running, Or Why Do I Have Calf Pain After Running?
  • Anatomy Of The Calf Complex
  • Causes of Calf Pain From Running
  • Calf Pain Running: Effective Treatment

Let’s jump into it!

A person holding their calf in pain.

Why Do my calves hurt while running, Or Why Do I Have Calf Pain After Running

If you’re reading this article, then you have probably noticed that your calves are sore after running.

Pain in the calf muscle complex is most commonly down to a calf strain, and before you begin to rectify the pain, it is important to identify the severity of the issue.

A calf muscle strain can be broken down into 3 categories:

Grade 1 Strain:

A mild calf muscle strain where a minimal number of muscle fibers are stretched or torn. It may cause some discomfort or mild pain but usually does not limit your ability to run or perform other activities.

You’ll likely experience the following:

  • Sharp pain experienced during or after physical activity
  • A feeling of tightness in the affected area
  • Ability to continue with the activity, with or without mild discomfort
  • Post-activity tightness and/or aching

A return to running would be expected within 1 to 3 weeks.

A person holding their calf muscle.

Grade 2 Strain:

A moderate calf muscle strain is where more muscle fibers are stretched or torn. It can cause more pain, swelling, and tenderness and may limit your ability to run or perform other activities.

You’ll likely experience the following:

  • Sharp pain experienced during physical activity in the calf
  • Inability to continue with the activity due to the pain
  • Significant pain when walking or putting weight on the affected leg after the activity
  • Swelling in the affected muscle
  • Mild to moderate bruising may be visible in the affected area

You can expect a 3 to 6 weeks recovery period before a return to running

Grade 3 Strain:

A severe calf muscle strain where the muscle is completely torn. It can cause significant pain, swelling, and bruising and will likely limit your ability to run or perform other activities.

You’ll likely experience the following:

  • Severe and immediate pain at the musculotendinous junction of the calf muscle
  • Inability to continue with the activity due to the pain
  • Considerable bruising and swelling may be present in the affected area within hours of the injury

Recovery times are highly individualized but can take up to 6 months.

Before we look at the causes behind a calf muscle strain, let’s take a look at the anatomy to get a better idea of what we’re dealing with!

The anatomy of the calf muscles.

Anatomy of the calf complex

Do your calves hurt after running? The calf complex, which includes the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantaris muscles, plays a crucial role in running.

The gastrocnemius is the largest and most superficial muscle of the calf complex. It has two heads that originate from the femur and merge to form a single muscle belly that inserts into the calcaneus bone via the Achilles tendon.

The gastrocnemius is the primary muscle responsible for plantarflexion of the ankle joint, which is essential for generating force during push-off.

The soleus muscle is located underneath the gastrocnemius and originates from the tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg.

The soleus muscle is crucial for running because it helps to stabilize the ankle and control forward motion of the lower leg during the swing phase of running.

A person holding their calf in pain.

The plantaris muscle is a smaller muscle that runs alongside the gastrocnemius and inserts into the calcaneus bone.

Although it doesn’t play as big a role as the other two, it assists with plantarflexion of the ankle joint and knee flexion during the swing phase of running.

If you have pain in the lower calf from running, you may want to check out our guide on: Achilles Tendonitis.

Alternatively, if you have pain on the side of the calf when running, you may want to check out: Peroneal Tendonitis

causes of calf pain From running

If there was no direct trauma to your calf muscle, the pain often follows a pattern of development during your run and gets gradually worse as you continue to run. The calf may feel so tight, or the pain may get so bad that you stop. Once you stop, the pain reduces but lingers for a day or two.

A person holding their calf in pain.

The two most likely reasons why this is happening are:

#1: Overuse Leading To The Calf Muscles Being Overloaded

Have you changed anything in the way of training recently?

An overload injury can occur when the calf muscle is subjected to more stress and strain than it can handle in a certain timeframe.

Potential culprits may include adding hill or speed work, suddenly increasing weekly mileage, or ramping up the intensity of your training. `

Having a structured training plan is an effective way to avoid overtraining; it should include adequate rest and recovery with a progressive increase in volume and intensity.

#2: Weakness In The Calf Complex

Try a single-legged calf raise on both legs. Are both sides able to perform an equal amount of repetitions? Are you able to perform at least 20 reps?

If the calf muscle is weak, it will fatigue faster, which can put you more at risk of pain and tightness.

Have you recently switched to barefoot? Running barefoot places more strain on the Achilles and calf muscles than traditional footwear, and as such, the body needs time to adapt to this new way of running.

We’ll look at some exercises to strengthen the calf complex in the treatment plan below.

A calf stretch.

calf pain Running: Effective treatment

A previous calf injury is one of the greatest predictors of future calf injury. Therefore it is essential to progressively strengthen the calf complex to avoid future injury.

The specific program of rehabilitation you should follow for your calf pain will depend on a number of factors; the best way to get a plan tailored to you is to seek out the help of a medical professional.

Factors such as whether it is a grade 1, 2, or 3 strain should be considered when undergoing rehab.

You may be sitting there thinking, “I have calf pain after running, so should I run with calf pain?” Don’t train through an injury. Assess the situation first. A few days of rest can work wonders.

The road to recovery is not straightforward; although there are blueprints to follow, it will always vary between individuals.

A person holding their calf in pain.

One thing is for sure, if you continue putting excessive stress on an injured muscle or tendon, it will get worse.

Rehab should be comfortable; at no point do you excessively stress the calf muscle.

Take your time; progression is a process. What was an uncomfortable exercise two weeks ago may now feel comfortable. That is our capacity increasing.

As we continue to exercise, we increase the calf’s capacity for load and stress.

Phase 1: Reducing Pain

If your injury is severe or acute, you can use the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to help treat your pain right away.

To promote healing and reduce pain and swelling in the affected area, follow these steps:

runner ices Achilles heel injury

Rest: Minimize weight-bearing activities and avoid running for at least a few days to allow for adequate rest.

Ice: Apply ice or a cold compress to the area for 20 minutes, three times a day, to alleviate pain.

Compression: Use a compression garment such as socks, bandages, or tape to increase blood flow and reduce swelling in the calf.

Elevation: Elevate the calf above the level of your chest, if possible, by lying down and propping your foot on a pillow. This will facilitate the return of blood to your heart, thus reducing swelling.

Phase 1 Exercise: Calf Stretch

You can begin to bring back movement with a calf stretch.

Remember to listen to your body and not overstretch. If you feel any pain or discomfort, ease off the stretch and try again with a smaller step.

You can repeat this stretch 2-3 times on each leg, holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds.

Phase 1 Exercise: Isometric Calf Raise

Calf Pain From Running? 2 Likely Causes + An Effective Treatment Plan 1

After a period of rest, introducing an isometric calf raise is a great exercise to utilize.

Push yourself onto your toes for 40-60 second holds, and repeat 4-5 times.

If the injured muscle is highly irritable, try both feet down, holding for a shorter time or fewer repetitions.

Phase 2 – Improve Strength

What loading level is appropriate for you depends on the severity of your condition.

Phase 2 Exercise: Single-Legged Calf Raise

A loading program that puts equal focus on the eccentric and concentric phases is an effective way to target the soleus muscle.

Try a six-second calf raise, 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down.

Make sure to add weight when required.

Try 3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.

Aim to get to 20 repetitions and then add weight.

What is heavy will change as your strength builds; the prescribed exercise should be challenging without eliciting pain from the calf complex.

People picking up kettlebells.

Phase 3 – Functional Rehabilitation

By this point, you may have already re-introduced running.

A gradual return to usual activities, alongside a strength routine, will often strengthen the calf to a necessary level.

Continue to apply functional rehabilitation. You can turn a calf raise into a plyometric movement by hopping on the spot. Also, try out skipping and running up a flight of stairs.

All options should be tried conservatively at first and then progressively made harder by increasing time or weight.

Next time you are out for a run and you feel pain in your calf, consult these tips in order to avoid aggravating an injury further! It is always best to rest for a few days than ignore the body and be sidelined for a number of months.

If you are looking for where to start training the strength in your calves, check out our guide to the Ultimate Strength Training Plan For Runners.

A single leg deadlift.
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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