How to Treat Tight Calf Muscles in Runners

Jogger strechting on street in the rain
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Tight calf muscles are a common problem for runners. They can occur naturally as your body responds to the stress placed on the muscles (known as the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles) while running. The most common symptoms of tight calf muscles are pain, spasms, a "pulling" sensation when you point or flex the foot.

You can avoid injury by prepping the calves in advance of a run with a series of simple stretches. Regular stretching at the gym can also help keep the muscles supple and prevent the excessive contraction of tissues between runs.

3 Easy Stretches for Your Calves

Causes and Symptoms

As much as we may love running, the activity places repetitive stress on the calf muscles, causing micro-tears in the fibrous tissues. As the micro-tears heal, the tissues will begin to contract and become tight. A few minutes of gentle stretching can usually ease them open and prevent the formation of scar tissue.

However, if you allow the micro-tears to develop without stretching, the scar tissues can cause the muscles to shorten. When this happens, it may take longer for the stiffness to ease during a run.

Some people will also develop spasms known as "Charley horses" when the micro-tears divert blood from the calf muscle. Others still will experience minor strains or major ruptures.

Calf tightness can vary from one person to the next. Most people will experience tightness before a run which eases as they begin to hit their stride.

Other runners will experience tightness while running. For this group, the problem often stems from biomechanical problems in which the foot strikes the ground unevenly and places excessive stress on the calf muscles. Overpronation, in which the heel rolls inward as you take a step, is a common cause. A poor shoe fit and/or an improperly supported foot arch can also do the same.

The problem can be further exacerbated by dehydration. The rapid loss of salt through sweat can trigger muscle cramps in the lower extremities, most especially the feet and calves. Proper hydration before, during, and after a run can help prevent this.

Treatment

While the treatment of tight calf muscles can vary by the underlying cause, stretching tends to improve most symptoms if performed correctly. To do so safely:

  • Never rush a stretch. Stretch slowly and hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Do not stretch through pain. If you feel pain during any part of a stretch, ease back and maintain gentle pressure until the muscle relaxes on its own. If the pain persists, stop.
  • Always stretch both sides. This ensures your gait is balanced.
  • Never bounce when stretching. Doing so will increase your risk of a strain or rupture.
Stretching Exercises for Soleus and Calf Muscles

If you experience a charley horse, self-massage and gentle stretching can usually help ease the spasms. Try taking a lunge position with your good leg forward and your cramped leg extended back. You can also stand on your tiptoes for a few seconds to gently alleviate the cramp.

In the pain is severe, an ice pack can provide relief, followed by an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen). A sports drink may also help by quickly restoring fluids and electrolytes if you are dehydrated.

If the calf tightness is chronic and causing impairment, consider seeing a physical therapist or sports massage therapist. Several courses of deep tissue massage can often help alongside warm-water hydrotherapy. Some therapists may recommend a plantar fasciitis night splint to prevent the muscle from seizing up when you sleep.

Prevention

Tight calf muscles are more often the result of inadequate stretching complicated by an underlying foot or gait abnormality. To this end, there are several things you can do to prevent them from occurring:

  • Never run cold. Always stretch before a run and cool down when you finish. This is especially true in cold weather.
  • Watch those hills. It is easy to overdo it on a hill run when you are bounding on your toes and hyperextending your calves. Either slow down or take breaks when navigating a steep incline.
  • Avoid repetition. If your calves had a hectic workout one day, don't follow up with the same routine the next. Repeated stress is more likely to trigger a charley horse or injury.
  • Keep hydrated during a run. If running on a hot day, rehydrate regularly with an electrolyte-rich sports drink.
  • Making stretching a part of your gym routine. Even simple toe and heel raises can keep the calve muscles from seizing up between runs. Yoga is also beneficial to runners who are experiencing tightness.
  • Get the right shoes: If you are an avid runner, invest in a properly fitted pair from a specialist running store. If you have high arches or flat feet, speak with a podiatrist about custom orthotics or insoles.
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