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Those Pesky Calves – Runners Beware!

Generally the problem relates to the fact we spend a great deal of time sitting. This might be at our desk at work, on the sofa, at the home office and while eating but there is also cars, trains and buses let alone those that get their exercise from the a bike. We are constantly repeating the same position and the problem is that our gluts (our bum muscles) are in a long position for much of this time. Surprisingly when we get up and try to use these muscles into hip extension they struggle having not been used that way for most of the day. Here in lies the problem everyone, we suddenly ask a muscle to work into its inner range having not used or exercised it into this range at any other point during the day. Meanwhile our hip flexors are adaptively shortening due the position they are resting in.

 

So what happens to cause our calf problems then? Well with lack of hip extension and an inability to activate the gluts your body is going to search for another muscle to take on the required workload. In this case your calves are the prime target. Now I understand your calves are suppose to help with running but they should fire as part of a sequence of events and the gluteal muscles should kick in first. Essentially you can point those toes out behind you to assist in achieving the propulsion you are not getting from higher up the chain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The runner above has obtained approximately 5 degrees of hip extension but is already seen beginning to lift through the heel, the ankle can be seen to be in a relatively neutral position.

 

 

As can be seen by the time the runner has reached toe off his calf has done most of the work. The runner has been propelled up into the air and the ankle has moved into a plantar flexed (toe pointing) position.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This runner has achieved well over 10 degrees of hip extension (my top point is a little forwards but the point is clear) and is still in a relatively neutral ankle position, something that is relatively well maintained through to the toe off phase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At toe off the calf is working but secondary to the hip and so the movement is forwards and the ankle will be in a neutral position coming through into the next leg cycle.

 

The key factors then in trying to avoid some of those problems that occur in runners involve understanding good running technique, having good hip range available and having an ability to activate at high load (speed being the factor here) your gluteals into the inner range. This is not the only way your calves can cause you problems but is certainly one I see regularly in both our physiotherapy and running clients.

 

So what do you do now?

 

1. Check Flexibility – Test the length of the key muscles involved so you need to test your calves, quadriceps (front of thigh) and your hip flexors (this is not an exclusive list but a good starting point). If you are flexible great but please do the work to maintain that movement, these changes can creep up on you and injuries will surely follow.

 

All stretches should be repeated 3-5 times and held for about 20 seconds to be effective.

 

Stay tall, tense the abdominals and drive your hip forwards slowly to feel a stretch at the front of the hip joint.

Stay tall, tighten the abdominals to flatten the back, hold. Then drive the hip forwards and hold, now pull the knee back along side the other leg. Go back to the top and add in more abdominals, then hip and then leg back!

 

 

2. Do your strength work – This is greatly under estimated by runners but the work you do to build good strength is key to maintaining good form, and no it does not need to be heavy weights in the gym it can equally be body weight work at home or in the park.

 

Here we have photos of my three favourite strengthening exercises for the hip region, covering range improvement and high load strength for running. Follow the guidelines but you should be doing one or two of these after each run and possibly as part of a circuit for general strength at some point during a week.

 

Simple hip bridge but so good for getting those gluts working into the inner range, same and helps activate the adductors which help with hip extension too. Make sure you feel the gluts over the back (tuck your ribs in towards the ground) or hamstring (get onto your heels). x10 hold for 10 seconds.

A simple single leg squat into a toe touch, keep the knee in line and the chest up as in the photo. Go slow until you have better balance and control. x3 sets and 10 reps.

 

 

 

Again this is not an exclusive list of reasons for calf problems amongst runners but as a global starting point it is bound to help if you do the work to allow your body to move in a better pattern. Good luck with avoiding the pesky calf problem.