Calf Pain From Running
Running is an excellent way to stay fit and maintain good health. However, as it is a high-impact activity it can put a lot of strain on the body, especially the legs. Calf pain is one of the most common complaints among runners. The symptoms of calf pain can range from a mild discomfort to strong pain that can make it difficult to continue running.
Physical therapists are ideally positioned to treat calf and running-related injuries. Whether it’s for experienced runners or weekend warriors, physical therapy can help increase lower limb strength, flexibility, and conditioning for running. This article discusses the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for calf pain after running.
Causes Of Calf Pain From Running
Calf pain from running can be caused by a variety of factors. The most common causes of calf pain include:
Overuse: One of the most common causes of calf pain from running is overuse. This occurs when the muscles in the calf are subjected to repetitive stress and strain from running. When the muscles are overloaded, it can lead to reactionary inflammation and calf pain.
Tight calf muscles: Tight calf muscles can also lead to calf pain from running. Muscle tightness changes the length-strength relationship between the muscle fibres. As a result, this can increase the risk of injury during running activities, leading to pain and discomfort.
Muscle strain: A muscle strain can occur when a muscle is overstretched. As running is a high-impact activity, calf muscle strains are quite common amongst runners, especially if there has been a lack of or sudden increase in training load. Muscle strains can lead to pain, swelling, and stiffness. In more severe cases, overstretching can lead to a muscle tear.
Achilles tendinopathy: The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. When this tendon becomes irritated, it can lead to pain and discomfort in the calf. Achilles tendinopathy commonly develops from running, particularly if the runner is deconditioned or suddenly increases running distance or intensity. Commonly, the symptoms are experienced after running, but not during.
Shin splints: Shin splints are a common injury from running. Shin splints occur when the lower leg is overworked without adequate training or load monitoring. The hallmark symptom is pain at the front of the shins, but other symptoms can include aching, swelling, and tenderness.
Stress fractures: Stress fractures are small microfractures in the bones of the lower leg. They can be caused by repetitive stress and strain, from activities such as running or jumping. Stress fractures can lead to symptoms such as pain, discomfort, and difficulty walking. Any suspected stress fractures should be assessed by a medical professional.
Symptoms Of Calf Pain From Running
Calf pain can quickly put an end to a run. It can cause pain, tenderness, and difficulty with everyday tasks in more severe cases. Calf pain from running can present with a variety of other symptoms as well, including:
- Pain or discomfort in the calf muscles during or after running
- Stiffness or tightness in the calf muscles
- Swelling or inflammation in the calf muscles
- Difficulty walking or standing on the affected leg
- A popping or snapping sensation in the calf muscle
Whilst these are common symptoms of calf pain, there are also some “red flag” symptoms to be aware of. Red flag symptoms include persistent or unrelenting pain, unexplained bruising or discoloration, muscle weakness or sensory changes, cognitive changes, and shortness of breath. Anyone experiencing any unusual or unexplained symptoms should seek medical attention to determine the underlying cause of the symptoms.
Treatment Options For Calf Pain From Running
Treatment options for calf pain from running will depend on the underlying cause of the pain. A thorough evaluation should be completed prior to starting any treatment to make sure the most suitable treatments are used. Additionally, this process can help rule out more serious causes of calf pain and ensure the treatment won’t make the symptoms worse.
In general, the following treatment options may be recommended by a health professional for calf pain:
The P.E.A.C.E. Method: The P.E.A.C.E. method is a framework for injuries. It focuses on a holistic approach to rehabilitation by protecting the injury and getting the right help. The steps include:
- Protect the injury – The first step in the P.E.A.C.E. method for treating calf pain from running is to protect the area. This means avoiding painful movements and limiting activities that aggravate the symptoms.
- Avoid anti-inflammatories and icing – As inflammation is part of the natural healing process after an injury, health professionals recommend avoiding non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and icing. These may actually delay the healing process.
- Compression – Wearing a compression sleeve or wrap around the affected leg can help to reduce swelling and improve circulation in the calf. This can also provide symptom relief for the calf area.
- Elevation – Elevating the affected leg can help to reduce swelling by improving circulation in the area.
- Education – The final step is to get help from a trained professional. A physical therapist can assess the injury and surrounding joints to determine the best course of action.
Physical therapy: Physical therapy is a key component of managing calf pain. As there are many different causes of calf pain, a physical therapist can assess the muscles, tendons, and soft tissue in the leg to diagnose the underlying condition. They can also liaise with other health practitioners, such as doctors, if further investigations are needed.
Stretching and strengthening exercises: Depending on the cause of the calf pain, a physical therapist may prescribe a stretching and strengthening exercise program. Stretching and strengthening exercises can help to improve the flexibility and strength of the calf muscles, rebuilding strength in the calf and reducing the risk of future injuries.
Anti-inflammatory medications: A doctor may prescribe over-the-counter medications for calf pain. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help to reduce running-related calf pain and inflammation. Anti-inflammatories are usually only used for short-term symptom relief, so the underlying cause of the pain needs to be addressed with other treatments such as physical therapy.
Preventing Calf Pain From Running
Preventing calf pain from running is often the best course of action to keep athletes active and running. The following tips can help to reduce the risk of calf pain and other musculoskeletal injuries:
Warm up properly
Before starting a run, take a few minutes to warm up the muscles with some light stretching exercises. These simple movements can help prepare the muscles for the physical activity to come and reduce the risk of injury.
Wear proper footwear
Wearing the right shoes can make a big difference in preventing calf pain from running. Running is a repetitive activity, so small changes can make a difference. Make sure to wear shoes that fit properly and provide good support for the feet and ankles. It’s a good idea to seek help from a trained podiatrist who can assess the foot and choose the most suitable shoes and supports.
Gradually increase intensity and distance
For those new to running, it’s important not to do too much too soon. Overtraining, whether intensity or distance in running, can increase the risk of overuse injuries. Instead, it is important to gradually increase the intensity and distance of any runs. It may also be helpful to get a running program from a physical therapist to get the most out of the runs and prevent injuries.
Do some cross-training
Incorporating cross-training activities can help to reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Cross-training helps balance the body and build the muscles in the legs. For example, runners may like to incorporate Pilates or swimming into their exercise routine in order to keep the muscles strong and balanced.
Take breaks when needed
Small symptoms can turn into big problems if they are left unaddressed. It’s therefore important to pay attention to any signs of pain or injury when running, no matter how small. When needed, take a break and rest the muscles, even if it’s during a run. Continuing to run through pain can lead to more serious injuries.
Stretch after running
After a run, take a few minutes to cooldown and stretch any muscles. As the calves are heavily used during running, it’s a good idea to stretch the calf muscles. This can help to reduce stiffness and soreness after a run and improve overall flexibility.
Drinking plenty of water before, during, and after a run can help to prevent cramps. It can also help with muscle fatigue, reducing the risk of injury and pain.
Get On Top Of Running-Related Calf Pain
Calf pain from running is a common complaint among runners, but it can often be treated and prevented with the right care. Any symptoms of calf pain should be assessed by a physical therapist to determine the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.
By taking the necessary steps, such as warming up properly, wearing the right footwear, and gradually increasing the intensity and distance of any runs, it is possible to reduce the risk of running-related calf pain and keep on enjoying running.
Need help for calf pain in San Ramon, CA? Schedule a free consultation with our physical therapy team at Ironhorse Physical Therapy & Pilates.
NHS. Calf problems. Available from: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/muscle-bone-and-joints/self-management-advice/calf-problems
Physiopedia. Calf strain. Available from: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Calf_Strain?lang=en
Better Health. Muscle cramps. Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/muscle-cramp