An experienced old runner who lived and ran in the Colorado mountains once said to me:
“The calves are the runner’s heart”.
Admittingly an over-statement, and yet there is some truth to his words. The calves are extremely important to runners. While not the only important muscles used when running, sore calves is something every runner has dealt with at some point.
These days when many runners are transistioning to minimalistic or barefoot style running shoes, taking good care of your calves is even more vital. Changing your footwear from traditional running shoes to minimalistic—let alone barefoot style footware, will cause extra stress on you calves. It will take time to adjust to this new level of stress.
But changing footware isn’t necessary in order to get sore calves. If you are a beginner, if you are starting to run after a time off, or if you are increasing your milage and/or intensity of training, sore calves is probably something you´re dealing with right now. Even routined runners who are not increasing or changing their training need to take good care their calves.
So how do you treat these babies when they are sore after running? How do you prevent this from becoming a problem that interferes with your running? Well, there are a few things you can do yourself. Here are the things I think is the most important (in no particular order):
Ahh, I know how to stretch my calves, a piece of cake! Well, before you skip this part, do you know there are actually two different calf muscles? And because of anatomical differences, these muscles are stretched in two distinctive ways.
Straight Knee Stretching
This is the more common calf stretch. Stretching with a straight knee and the ankle flexed up (dorsiflexion). That´s how to stretch the gastrocnemius muscle.
You can accomplish this in different ways. The way I prefer, is to stretch in stairs (fig. 1). But if you have a fragile ankle, it might be better to use a sloping surface like in fig. 2. This way of stretching is not as agressive but at the same time it´s kinder to your ankle joint.
In both versions you keep the heel of the foot you´re stretching as close to the ground as possible, keep a straigt back, and move your body-weight towards the leg you’re stretching.
When stretching on the slope, however, you also increase the space between your feet as much as possible without lifting the heel of the foot that is being stretched. This is done to decrease the ankle angle. The downside is that your body weight will then move away from the stretched foot. To make up for this, you can do the stretch with your hands against the wall and push the wall without changing your posture. That way you will force the heel closer to the ground, resulting in an increased stretch. Some people even get a sufficient stretch this way without using a sloping surface.
Bent Knee Stretching
Now we get to the stretch many people neglect. The soleus muscle lies beneath the gastrocnemius muscle. For distance runners, it can be even more important to stretch the soleus than the gastrocnemius. And yet many runners only stretch the calves with a straight knee.
Differences Between Soleus and Gastrocnemius
Soleus is a postural muscle. It´s the muscle that keeps you´re knees from giving in when you are standing. It´s also important in stabilizing the foot when it lands on the ground. So the soleus is more or less active all the time when people are on their feet, whether they are standing, walking or running. It can stay active for a long time without fatique. The downside is that it can´t produce explosive power.
That´s where the gastrocnemius comes into the picture. But even though it is more explosive, it lacks the endurance of the soleus. It can´t stay active for a long time at once.
So which muscle is more important to runners? Both are equally important. They complement each other. The faster you run, however, the more involved the gastrocnemius is.
That does not mean that the soleus becomes less important when running fast. On the contrary, more speed adds to the workload of both muscles. And the better job the soleus (among other muscles) does of stabilizing the foot as it lands, the more efficiant will the gastrocnemius be to increase the speed.
The soleus is the work-horse, if you will. It´s constantly working and doing the hard work while the gastrocnemius is the stallion that goes out for fast but shorter sprints. This is because the gastrocnemius is rich of fast twitch fibers, while the soleus is mostly made up of slow twitch fibers.
This means that in distance running, the soleus is particularly important. If you have sore calves because of distance running, chances are the soleus is in more need of stretching of the two muscles.
So lets get practical and take a look at how to stretch the soleus muscle
How to Stretch the Soleus (Bent Knee Stretching)
The bent knee stretch is a more sublte calf stretch than stretching with a straight knee. It feels different because you are stretching different muscles. It´s a deeper, duller muscle pull. In fact, if you are not sore, you may not feel the stretch at all, especially if you are not familiar with the stretch. But if you are sore, you will feel it if you perform it correctly.
I recommend stretching the soleus kneeling. You kneel on one knee, putting your weight on the foot you stand on. You use the other foot only for balance, avoiding putting any weight on it. Keep the heel of the foot you are stretching on the ground and then move your upper body a little bit forward, decreasing the angle of the ankle until you feel a deep pull in your calf. Stop and hold the stretch. For some people, the heel never leaves the ground but others like to lean forward until the heel elevates a little bit. Watch out, however, not to lift the heel too much because then the stretch subsides.
Other Ways to Stretch the Soleus Muscles
Even though I find the version described above the most efficient way to stretch the soleus, you can also use the same methods used to stretch the gastrocnemius which we already covered. Whether you are stretching in stairs, or by pushing your hands towards the wall (you don´t even need a sloping surface), the only difference is that you bend the knee of the foot you are stretching slightly (about 30°) and voila: instead of stretching the gastrocnimius, you are now stretching the soleus. Experiment and see which stretch suits you best!
How Long Should You Stretch?
Some studies suggest that long calf muscles, namely Soleus muscles, decreases efficiency in running. The theory is that the elasticity of the calves and Achilles tendon increases efficiency in running by creating a propelling force. This makes sense, but you should not at all let this scare you off from stretching the soleus. When you put the Soleus under much stress by running, it can become abnormally short and sore. This can result in injuries. By stretching, you are simply relieving tension and helping the muscle recover. You do not need to worry that you will lengthen the muscle beyond what it normally is. Studies suggest that in order to actually lengthen a muscle, you need an intense stretch for at least six minutes at a time, preferably several times a day. And this is without putting the muscle through strenuous running that causes it to shorten and becoming tense.
Most experts agree that runners should stretch to avoid injury without without stretching excessively however. The golden middle way is the way to go.
So you can go ahead and stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds and maximum of 2 minutes. For most people 40-60 seconds is ideal.