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.
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.
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:
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:
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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.