What muscles are in your calf?
The two major muscles of the calf are gastrocnemius and soleus.
Gastrocnemius starts above the knee and attaches to the calcaneus bone through the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius is at its most powerful when the leg is straight and has two heads on the inside and outside of the calf to create strong contractions whilst also stabilising the ankle.
A great way of activating the Gastrocnemius muscle is to perform a straight leg calf raise or simply walking around on your toes. Below these two heads of Gastrocnemius lies the flat triangular muscle Soleus which again attaches into the Achilles tendon however it only controls ankle movement.
There are other important muscles within the calf that help whilst walking or running. These pass down the inside of the calf and sometimes are missed when diagnosing a calf strain. Tibialis Posterior supports the arch of your foot whilst Flexor Hallucis Longus and Flexor Digitorum Longus both control the big toe during movement, giving the athlete a solid platform to push off.
The best calf strain stretches
It’s very important to stretch all the key muscles involved in walking and running to avoid any injuries. The calf muscles are located between the knee and ankle joint at the back of the leg.
Gastrocnemius can be stretched by dropping the heel off a step whilst keeping the knee straight. The Soleus is best stretched by pushing the knee forward over your toes whilst keeping the foot planted on the floor. I like to do this in a half-kneeling position with the affected foot kept on the floor and my chest pushing through my knee. I do this so I can then proceed to the other muscles that pass through the arch of my foot; Tibialis posterior, Flexor Digitorum and Flexor Hallucis Longus.
I push the knee further forward allowing the heel to rise and weight to be transferred from the foot into the big toe. Once in this position, I allow the heel to drop slightly so the ankle joint is being squashed or made smaller, and the stretch can be felt along the inside of the calf and into the arch of the foot.
The best exercises to strengthen your calf
One of the best exercises for strengthening the calf complex is walking around on your toes.
This simple exercise contracts and strengthens every calf muscle and teaches them how to adapt to controlling and stabilising the ankle during movement. To create dynamic stability and acceleration/deceleration exercises you can use a box-step to jump up and over repeatedly, so the calf muscles work quickly between each phase of contractions.
The calf works to decelerate you as the foot strikes the ground during running however it can become tired quickly and tear if it’s not used to the forces applied through it.
These forces change when you are heavier than normal, dehydrated, running too quickly or haven’t trained before on a specific terrain where increased calf activity is required to stabilise the foot.
Fartlek training is great to allow your muscles to recover and is underused in training. Fartlek training is where you run intervals at different paces and have walking stages between efforts. It’s very common to hear runners wanting to run for 30 or 60 minutes without a break yet we all go into the gym to lift weights and rest between sets.
The same principle needs to be applied when trying to run further or faster and allow the muscles to recover so don’t be scared to walk a little to allow the calf muscles to have a break.
How long does a calf strain take to heal?
Calf strains are frustrating and can take a long time to heal due to us having to use the calf complex in everyday activities. A low-level calf injury that appears by the muscle tightening excessively during exercise usually resolves in a couple of weeks however if the calf tears (you may even feel a “pop” when it does) you may be out of action for 4-6 weeks.
It’s important to avoid these types of injuries with correct compression garments until full fitness levels and optimum body weight is achieved. That’s not saying we all need to be skinny to exercise or have minimal body fat compositions, this means we must understand that the heavier we are the more force goes through the calf as it tries to decelerate our movement. Gradual conditioning the speed and distance our calves need to work which allows them to adapt to these pressures whilst we are hopefully reducing our weight.
Chronic calf tears mean a total reduction in activity and no explosive movements or fast running from anywhere between 1 and 2 months. Gentle nonimpact exercises can resume once the initial pain has subsided or even upper bodywork could be favoured. It’s very important to allow the new fibres to strengthen under small forces before running again or reinjury will occur at the initial injury site.