How to Prevent and Treat Tight Calf Muscles

Massage, Stretching, and More

Jogger strechting on street in the rain
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Tight calf muscles are a common problem for runners. You'll feel a gradual tightening of your calf muscles when running. Sometimes the pain will go away while running but then comes back after you stop.

Cause of Tight Calf Muscles

Tight calf muscles are often caused by increasing your mileage too quickly and/or not stretching properly. They can also be a result of frequently running hard or long too without taking enough rest time in between workouts.

Sometimes they are also due to a biomechanical problem that can be corrected with the right running shoes or orthotics.

Treatment for Tight Calf Muscles

Here is what you can do for tight calves:

  • Stretching when you feel a cramp: If a calf cramp or tightness strikes in the middle of a run, stretching the muscle is the best immediate fix. Find a curb and rest the forefoot of the leg that's cramping on the curb. Slowly lower your heel off the curb and hold for 30 seconds. If your calf really starts seizing up, you may need to gently massage the area. Application of heat can also help the cramp release. Don't resume your run if you have a strong cramp.
  • Sports drink or pickle juice for a cramp: Dehydration and the loss of salt due to sweat during a run may contribute to calf muscle cramps. Drinking an electrolyte-containing sports drink may help. Some runners swear by pickle juice, which contains sodium and vinegar. Although it is commonly used, the effectiveness of pickle juice isn't yet verified by research.
  • Massage: After runs, one of the best ways to treat tight calf muscles is to see a sports massage therapist or physical therapist for a deep tissue massage.
  • Self-massage: If you don't have the money or time for professional massages, you can also do self-massage at home using a massage tool such as a massage ball or foam roller. You can even use a tennis ball or golf ball as a massage tool to work out tightness in your calves. Lie down on the ball and place it right near where you're feeling a tight spot or muscle knot. You then use your body weight to apply consistent pressure and roll back and forth on the ball for a few minutes.
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises: You should also make sure you're stretching your calves (without pain) and strengthening your calf muscles. You can do simple exercises such as toe raises and heel raises. Yoga is very beneficial for runners who are experiencing tightness.
  • Get the right shoes: If you haven't already, go to a running specialty store to make sure you're wearing the right running shoes for your feet. If the pain persists for more than two weeks, make an appointment with a sports doctor.

Prevention of Tight Calf Muscles

Tight calves are a very common overuse injury, so make sure you're not increasing your mileage or intensity too quickly. You should increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent each week.

Warming-up before a run by doing a short walk, easy jog, or warm-up exercises is also important, so your calf muscles are warmed up before you start putting too much stress on them. Also, make sure that you gently stretch your calves after every run. Use caution and don't overdo it when adding hill training into your running routine, as running a lot of hills can often lead to tight calves.

Sources:

Heat Cramps: First Aid. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-heat-cramps/basics/art-20056669.

Muscle Cramp. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/syc-20350820.

Mckenney MA, Miller KC, Deal JE, Garden-Robinson JA, Rhee YS. Plasma and Electrolyte Changes in Exercising Humans After Ingestion of Multiple Boluses of Pickle Juice. Journal of Athletic Training. 2015;50(2):141-146. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-50.2.07.