The runner’s guide to strong, happy calves
Camaraderie is built on the run. Most of us have experienced a long run’s magical ability to turn strangers into best friends. However, after working with hundreds of athletes, I argue that nothing unites us quite like our disdain for tight, weak, and painful calves. The ache of the high trigger point, the irritation of the low soleus, the generalized fatigue that keeps us from sprinting to the finish: there is nothing like it and almost nothing more common.
Anatomy and related injury
The calf complex is the distal portion of the posterior chain and consists of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus, which travel down the back of the lower leg and unite at the common Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius serves as the power portion of the complex, with a greater role during sprinting, jumping, etc. The soleus is an endurance muscle and plays a primary role during longer miles and hill climbs. Tightness and weakness in either or both muscles can contribute to a myriad of pesky injuries including, plantar fasciitis and posterior tibialis, peroneal tendon, and Achilles tendinopathy, amongst other things. So how do we safeguard against these and start building stronger, more powerful calves? Strap in folks, as we break it down.
The runner’s guide to strong, happy calves:
Phase 1: Preparation and mobility
When preparing any muscle group for movement, it is important to warm it up with passive movements, active movements, or both. In this routine, we will use a ball and our body weight to target areas of concern, improve circulation, reduce tightness and prep the calves for exercises to follow.
Goal: Improve circulation and fascial glide while reducing tightness and trigger point activity.
Prescription: Aim for gentle warming rolls for 1-3 minutes, then progress with 5-10 minutes of targeted pin and pump rolling, per the video.
Goal: Improve muscular response and ready the complex for strength.
Prescription: 5-10 reps for each movement.
Phase 2: Strength and power
Goal: Build power through the calf complex.
Form tips: Aim for an explosive movement with fast foot contact time. In other words, as soon as the forefoot contacts the ground, jump again with as little time touching the ground as possible.
Prescription: Begin with 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps, each side.
Goal: Improve tendon health as well as dynamic stability and endurance.
Form tips: Keep trunk upright, focusing on fast foot contact time.
Prescription: Begin with 40 reps double leg hops, 20 straight knee hops, 10 back to front, 10 side to side, then increase by reps of 5 until you meet the video’s prescription suggestion.
Goal: Improve calf stability while improving the mechanics of the entire posterior chain with runner-specific form.
Form tips: Stand in front of a mirror to ensure the knee does not shift inward during the movement. Focus on fully standing at the top of each rep without any remaining bend in the hips.
Prescription: Begin with 2 sets of 10 reps each side.
This routine should be used as a preventative and/or supplemental program in addition to your current running and strength routine. If you have pain or a nagging injury, see a physical therapist for a program specific to your needs. Otherwise, use this guide before your run, 1-3 times a week, as part of your weekly strength, or when your calves are calling for more attention!
- Coach Asher
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Asher Kyger Henry, PT, CSCS, PES
Asher is a sports physical therapist, run and strength coach at Dasher Personalized Running. She partners with trail and road runners to create science-backed training programs that maximize joy and mitigate injury. Asher’s running accolades include a 5th place finish at the US Half Marathon Championships and four all-american honors in track and cross country.