Why Your Calves Are Tight

By Jae Gruenke | Injury Recovery

Feb 14

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 so many runners struggle with this and it 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, you can find it here.

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 spiralling away from that foot. I’m very fond of this picture because it shows the movement so well:

Core Action

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 spiralling 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.

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, tight, and/or sore calves 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.

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:

Click here to get the resource!

 

Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter filled with analysis, information, insights, and tips you can apply to your own running!

Follow

About the Author

Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.

Leave a Comment:

(11) comments

Steve Shard February 15, 2016

Interesting article!
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!

Reply
    Jae Gruenke February 16, 2016

    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?

    Reply
      Steve Shard February 17, 2016

      Yes I do believe stretching my back has helped my calves some.

      Reply
MP Nunan February 15, 2016

Thanks so much! From me – and my calves!!

Reply
    Jae Gruenke February 16, 2016

    You’re welcome!

    Reply
Marco March 16, 2016

According to this blog post there’s a webinar just right now. However the room is empty…

Reply
    Jae Gruenke April 3, 2016

    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.

    Reply
Pam January 10, 2018

What can I do to help my calves feel better.
And loosen up

Reply
    Jae Gruenke January 19, 2018

    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!

    Reply
Olivia April 16, 2020

Hi!

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!

Reply
    Jae Gruenke April 17, 2020

    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.

    Reply
Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: