So awhile back I wrote and shared with several people about an injury I had to endure for a few weeks. I thought it was piriformis related. However, after talking with a friend who recently saw a really good physical therapist who works with a lot of runners, I’m not so sure. Could many of the injuries we chalk up to be piriformis related actually be a calf muscle issue?
The piriformis muscle is a smaller flat band like muscle located in the buttocks right near the hip joint. It is located close to the sciatica nerve. Therefore, it is easy to blame the piriformis muscle when we have a lot of pain in our buttock and hip region. Whenever running clients come in to see my friends physical therapist, it is almost always not a piriformis issue but a calf issue! In fact, most of the running pain issues runners have boil down to an issue with the calves. What? How can the calf muscles be related to pain felt up in the hip area?
Just recently, I noticed that my plantar fasciitis pain was calf related. Once I started stretching my calves differently and correctly, the pain in my feet went down substantially! All this time I had bought new shoe liners, foot compression sleeves, and was massaging and icing my feet constantly. A couple of simple stretches a few times a day literally fixed my issue over everything else I was doing. Could calf soreness and tightness be the cause of so many other issues runners face?
The two muscles that get the most soreness for me are my quads and calves. Speed work and long 100 mile plus weeks have wreaked havoc on my quads and calves. I do my best to mix in consistent strength training but sometimes I fail to properly take care of my legs in the recovery process. Stretching is my biggest failure. I’m happy to just get my workouts in and taking a few extra minutes to stretch before, afterwards, and a few times throughout the day has not become habit for me. Therefore, I can see how my soreness and tightness in those two areas can become a major issue. It puts more pressure on other muscles as well like my glutes and hamstrings to take up the slack.
Sore and tight calves has an effect that changes the way a runner efficiently runs up the chain. We often times forget as runners that it only takes one area of our body to alter how the rest of our body functions. If you run with tired, sore, and tight calves for a long period of time, your other body parts from knees, quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, lower back, and so on can be affected.
I’ll let you do your own research on what “calf” stretches are best and which ones are not as ideal For example, I have seen that stretching your calves on the end of stairs or steps is not a good idea. It is better to stretch your calf by keeping it flat on a an angled incline or wedge. Yes, they sell wedges on Amazon for stretching out your calves. Other important things to do for your calves include compression, massage, or rolling them out a couple times a day. Keeping up with this may help alleviate plantar fasciitis and those hip issues we thought were piriformis related.
Remember, the calves are key to not only propelling you forward in running but they also take a significant amount of load or impact from your landing. The calves are made up of two muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) that support everything you do as a runner. They also help pump blood from your lower legs to the heart. A lot of runners don’t realize that the calves are probably the first muscle to tire out in running. The upper leg muscles like the quads, hamstrings, and glutes are affected less quickly. The calves get used a lot but are neglected a lot in our training and recovery.
As I get older, my body or my muscles in particular just don’t work the same. Soreness, tightness, and injury are way more common. Yet, I still like to push it at my age so I have to be very good at taking care of my body when I am not running. Recovery is important. What I am doing in my recovery plan can make a huge difference between being able to keep training at a high level or being sidelined with pain and injury. I offer you the idea to check in on your calf muscles to see if they could be the issue or part of the problem in your running. Strength training, stretches, and an aggressive approach to recovery for your calves may help you get the most out of your training or get you back from injury status soon.