Sore calves after running can be uncomfortable, and can make it feel like you want to walk on your tiptoes, but fortunately, tight or sore calves after running typically resolve in a couple of days.
But, why are you experiencing sore calves after running? What causes tight or sore calves after running and what can you do to resolve it?
In this guide, we will answer these questions and give practical advice for dealing with sore calves after running.
We will look at:
- What Are the Calves?
- Is It Normal to Have Sore Calves After Running?
- Why Are My Calves Sore After Running?
- How to Prevent Sore Calves After Running
Let’s jump in!
What Are the Calves?
The calf muscles, or calves, are technically called the gastrocnemius muscles. These muscles are found behind the lower leg, running from the back of the knee down to where they taper and connect to the heel in the Achilles’ tendon.
There are two distinct muscles that form what we typically refer to as the calves: the two-headed gastrocnemius, which is the larger muscle, and the soleus.
Is It Normal to Have Sore Calves After Running?
Many runners experience muscle soreness after running, which is referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The discomfort associated with DOMS is thought to be a result of micro tears in the muscles that occur during a workout, as well as potentially be a residual effect of acidic metabolic byproducts left over in the muscles from intense exercise.
Dealing with sore calves after running a race or a hard workout is fairly common. Beginners also tend to experience mild to moderate muscle soreness in the calves after running, especially in the first couple of weeks of starting a training program.
Why Are My Calves Sore After Running?
If you are experiencing tight or sore calves after running, it could be due to one of the following reasons:
#1: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running If You Are a Beginner
Beginners often feel muscle soreness in most of their leg muscles from running because it takes time for the muscles to adapt to the increased workload imposed by the new form of exercise.
If your calves are sorer than your other muscles after your first few runs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an issue with your form or stride. The calves are heavily involved in the propulsive or push-off phase of the running stride as well as the impact or ground contact phase.
In fact, if your calves are sore after running and you’re new to the sport, it can actually be indicative that you’re using an ideal foot strike pattern with your running form.
Heel striking, or landing in the rearfoot, is common amongst distance runners, but it puts excessive stresses up the lower limb and minimizes forward propulsion.
Most experts say that landing on the midfoot is ideal from an injury risk perspective as well to optimize running economy. The closer to your forefoot you land, the higher the workload on the calves, or gastrocnemius muscles.
Therefore, if your calves are sore after running your first few runs, it could be a sign that your calves are working hard because you’re landing on the midfoot or forefoot—and thus using the muscles—rather than your heel.
#2: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running Hills
The calves are involved in plantarflexing the foot (pointing the toes) and flexing the knees, so the workload on the calves increases when you run uphill.
If you’ve done a hilly run or a hard workout of hill repeats, there’s a decent chance you’ll have sore calves after your workout.
Over time, as you develop strength in your calves, you should find that you get less sore after hill workouts because the stronger your muscles are, the less challenging the relative demand of the hill workout will be.
#3: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running In Certain Running Shoes
Most traditional running shoes have a slightly elevated heel relative to the forefoot. Known as “heel drop,” this difference is often about 12 mm. The higher the heel drop, the shorter the range of motion permitted with dorsiflexion (lifting your toes up).
In other words, if your running shoes have a large heel drop, your calves never stretch as much and the eccentric load on them will be less. However, if you wear zero drop shoes, racing flats, minimalist running shoes, or other running shoes that try to mimic the natural foot biomechanics, the heel and forefoot height will be closer together.
This will increase the permissible range of motion in your calves and increase the eccentric workload the calves can take on. Therefore, you can initially have sore calves after running when you switch to zero drop running shoes if you’ve been running in standard running shoes.
#4: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running On Grass
Running on soft surfaces like grass and sand allow your feet to sink into the terrain more, and the range of motion at the ankle joint increases. This can put more force through the calves, which have to stabilize the ankle and contract more forcefully at both impact and push off, which can cause soreness.
#5: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running Fast
Generally speaking, when you run a race or hard workout, you’re running faster than your body is typically accustomed to in normal training runs.
The faster you run, the higher the impact stresses and muscular forces imposed on your body. To achieve a faster speed, your body increases your stride length (up to a certain point), and then speed increases beyond this point are primarily achieved by increasing your cadence, both of which require the calves to work harder.
Moreover, sprinting tends to shift your body weight more forward on your foot, promoting a forefoot landing pattern, which heavily recruits the calves.
The faster you run, the harder you land with each step. Because the calves absorb the weight eccentrically when you land, faster running equates to stronger muscle contractions to support your body weight.
Finally, if you wore track spikes, there’s an even greater chance that you might have sore calves from running because spikes force you up onto the forefoot.
#6: You Might Have Sore Calves After Running If You Are Overstriding
Overstriding or improper pelvis positioning can cause sore calves from running. The longer your stride, the further out in front of your body (center of mass) your foot will be when you land.
In accordance with principles of physics, the greater the distance or moment arm from the line of force going through the joint, the greater the torque or magnitude of the force.
The muscles of the lower leg and foot, including the calves, are the muscles responsible for the last phase of accepting the body weight when you land on your foot. Since the calves (gastrocnemius) are the strongest of these muscles, it bears the brunt of this responsibility.
Moreover, the muscular demand when you land on your foot with each running stride is an eccentric muscle contraction with the calves.
There are three primary types of muscle contractions: concentric, eccentric, and isometric. In concentric contractions, the muscle shortens, such as the biceps when you lift a dumbbell during biceps curls. In terms of the calves, a concentric contraction would be standing up on tiptoes.
Eccentric contractions are lengthening contractions—the biceps resisting the force of gravity when you lower the weight back down from your curl. With the calves, an eccentric contraction would be standing on the edge of a step and dropping your heels down.
Finally, in isometric contractions, the muscle contracts but the length doesn’t change. Imagine holding a plank.
Eccentric contractions have been shown to be the most challenging on a muscle and result in the most tissue damage. Studies show that eccentric muscular work is a more significant contributor to the microtears associated with DOMS.
Therefore, the eccentric workload on the calves at impact landing is magnified by overstriding, which can result in sore calves after running.
Having a more upright posture with your feet closer under your body (not overstriding with your foot well in front of your center of gravity) will reduce the moment arm through the ankle and knee, and thus will reduce the workload on the calves.
How to Prevent Sore Calves After Running
In most cases, it’s possible to reduce the risk of experiencing sore calves after running, depending somewhat on the cause for the muscle soreness. Here are some preventative strategies:
- Progress in distance and intensity gradually.
- Hydrate properly before, during, and after your runs.
- Try ice baths or heat therapy.
- Eat a snack or meal with a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein after you run.
- Do more hill workouts (once your calves feel better) to strengthen your calves.
- Strengthen your calves.
- Adjust to zero drop shoes gradually.
- Shorten your stride and increase your cadence.
- Work on increasing hip mobility.
Do you get sore calves after running? What has helped you?
For a full set of calf stretches for after your run, take a look at our calf stretching guide for runners!