As I worked my way through a series of blog posts on tight quads over the last three weeks, a reader asked me to write about tight/sore calves next. It’s a great suggestion, since the tight-calf-in-running problem is really common and has a massive effect on the entire body. In fact, in my post last week I explained how it can actually cause tight quads! So if you regularly get calf soreness or struggle with tight calves, this blog post is for you.
Tight calves can either be a result of what you do in your daily life or of how you run. Let’s look at these one at a time.
Tight Calves from Daily Footwear
If you wear footwear that has elevated heels, you’ll get used to having your calves in a shortened position, and they’ll tend to stay that length or nearly so even when you take the heeled shoes off. I’m not just talking about women’s high-heel shoes here, but even flats and men’s shoes often have slightly elevated heels, and even a slight elevation makes a difference.
Do you have a job that requires you to wear shoes with elevated heels? (I always feel so sorry for the women working for British Airways, on their feet long hours in pumps.) You can balance things out somewhat by going barefoot and wearing the most minimalist shoes possible the rest of the time, and doing my key calf stretch daily (get it in the Quads and Calves Solution, below). However it will never be quite the same as if you didn’t have to wear those shoes.
So if you’re lucky enough not to be required to wear shoes with raised heels, don’t! You don’t have to run in minimalist shoes, but I strongly recommend you live in minimalist shoes. We made a video tip a few years back discussing this exact phenomenon.
There are more and more options of shoes for daily wear that are zero-drop (meaning no heel lift whatsoever) and flexible, and also have a wide toebox. As a woman, my very favorite are the ballet flats from Soft Star Shoes, though Vivobarefoot and some Camper shoes (their Peu line) also work well. I’m totally in love with my boots from Joe Nimble. For men there are options from those companies and more as well, check out this site or do some googling.
Tight Calves from Running Technique
If you’ve ruled out your daily footwear as a cause of your tight calves, then it’s probably due to your running technique. When you put your calf muscles in a position where they have to work too hard to push you up and forward in late stance, they really tighten up and get fatigued and sore.
Here’s how this works. As you move out of midstance through late stance to toe off your bodyweight is gradually lifting off your foot. This is accomplished by a coordinated motion of your whole body spiraling away from that foot. I’m very fond of this picture because it shows the movement so well:
You can see the front boy’s shoulders are turning away from the foot he’s leaving, and the folds of his shirt around the right side of his waist show this spiraling action as well. His head is moving to the right, towards the leg he’s about to land on. The second boy is doing the same on the opposite leg.
If you instead keep your torso — pelvis through shoulders — fairly square, your bodyweight doesn’t move off your foot in the same way and you end up having to push with your feet, working your calves.
It feels a little like pushing a refrigerator. Because it is a little like pushing a refrigerator. So voila: tight calf in running!
Every single runner who’s come to me complaining of chronically tight and sore calves has had a torso that isn’t moving enough. The tightness, fatigue, and soreness immediately improve when I help them feel how to move their pelvis, waist, and upper body, which I call the core action.
Yep, this is about the core action. If you’re a regular reader of this blog it may sometimes seem like everything comes down to the core action. That is more or less true, because the core action is how you get your weight in the right place at the right time. If your weight is in the wrong place, nothing else can work right and trying to fix anything else is, as they say, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
If, however, your weight is in the right place, then things will pretty much go right all by themselves. You can refine things, and build your versatility and control, but the basics will all fall into place as if they were following the laws of physics. Which they are.
So back to your calves. If you have stiff, sore, and/or tight calves when running and also don’t feel your pelvis or waist or upper body move much when you run, allowing it to move more will help. Maybe all you need is permission to do it — after all, an awful lot of authoritative people have said and written that you should try to restrict the movement of your core.
Maybe, however, just knowing it’s all allowed to move isn’t enough to get it started moving. Then you need a learning experience. This is especially true if you have just one tight calf in running–in that case you have an asymmetrical movement of your core and that will take some deeper learning to address.
I’ve put together my best Feldenkrais lessons for helping you improve your core action and relieve the stress on your calves in a free resource I call the Quads and Calves Solution. And I also put a video of my key stretch for undoing the effects of high heels and preparing your calves to work well on every run in it too. Access it here:
15 thoughts on “Why Your Calves Are Tight When Running”
I had chronically sore calves for a couple of years. I always wore shoes with little to no heel lift. Even if I took a couple of weeks off running, they were still sore, especially in the morning. Massage helped them alot. I also went once to a physical therapist who said that my problem calves were caused by problem with verebral spacing in low back, and he suggested I do stretches every day. The 1 and only stretch that he said I needed to do, put me in a position that looks much like that photo of the kids running. He said to lie on my side, and reach back with the top leg, and reach forward with the top arm, to feel a stretch in the lower back. So, if that therapist is correct, then perhaps the actual motion of running with lots of twist like Jae is showing in that photo of the kids, could help to create and support proper spacing of the vertebrae, which he says is key to have calves which work properly and are not tight and sore… Or perhaps just doing that stretch results in running with better motion that, as Jae says, means you don’t need to work so hard with your calves. Either way, great post!
Now that is interesting, Steve. If you learn how to do that movement well, it wouldn’t feel like a stretch, but it does allow the vertebrae to move in a natural way and they definitely won’t be compressed. Did it help your calves?
Yes I do believe stretching my back has helped my calves some.
Thanks so much! From me – and my calves!!
According to this blog post there’s a webinar just right now. However the room is empty…
Apologies, Marco. I didn’t realize I’d made a mistake with the date, it was actually 16 February, not March. However you can watch the replay here. Please note that the Indiegogo campaign has ended but the online camp is yet to come — it begins on 15 May and you can find the details here.
What can I do to help my calves feel better.
And loosen up
Hi Pam. I recommend you do the lesson I linked to in the blog post, and also join the Mind Your Running Challenge, which you’ll find here: https://www.balancedrunner.com/mind-your-running/ As I explain in the post, you need to address how your whole body is moving to get your calves to feel better, and the Challenge will definitely get you started on that!
I’m rather confused — I was under the assumption that when running, the core muscles should be engaged to keep the upper body posture upright and mainly facing forwards. Are you saying that the abs should be mainly relaxed, allowing the shoulders to swing forward then back, causing a sort of repetitive turning of the shoulders? I remember being taught that it was best for the arms to move fairly strictly forward and back when running and to keep the torso facing forwards, and I think what you’re saying would mean the arms would swing in front and across the body with the shoulders. Correct me if I’m wrong (in interpreting what you’re saying and in my ideas on good running form)!
Thanks very much!
Hi Olivia, you’ve correctly understood most of what I’m saying. The only thing I would clarify is that I’m not saying the abs are relaxed, but that they’re working to create and manage movement of the core rather than clenching to try to hold the core still. Unfortunately you seemed to have received some faulty advice in the past. Even more unfortunately, that bad advice is very popular! But it doesn’t accurately describe how the body works in running. I think you’ll find what I’m proposing works much better. Try my Mind Your Running Challenge (just type it into the search bar on my website) to learn how to stop fighting your body and let it work better when you run.
Great website and intriguing article. I am especially interested in the part about the shoes as I suspect that may be contributing to my calf tightness. The challenge for me is that I have custom insoles to help with 2 foot problems – the insoles are elevated at the heel. When I put them into a shoe with a slight elevation at the heel, the elevation is compounded. Do you know, is there a way to have the best of both worlds…arch and metatarsal support without heal lift? Thanks for any advice on this!
Sheila, I normally recommend Naboso insoles (naboso.com) for my clients who’ve been wearing orthotics, in conjunction with the work we do to improve their form overall (through Feldenkrais lessons) so they move properly over their feet. This is a gradual process but I’ve found it works quite well.
“This is especially true if you have just one tight calf in running–in that case you have an asymmetrical movement of your core and that will take some deeper learning to address.”
Please speak more to this, as this is exactly what I am experiencing. My left calf muscle is almost always tighter and more sore than the right. Sometimes it’s only the left calf muscle that is tight and sore.
That’s a bit different for different people, Ian. But I think the free mini-course at the bottom of the blog post (the Quads and Calves Solution) will likely be helpful to you, so give it a try!