One of the most dreaded feelings is that moment, while running along in a wonderful dreamlike state, when a calf pull stops you dead in your tracks. If you’ve ever experienced a calf strain, pull or the infamous “Calf Heart Attack,” you know the feeling of despair that comes over you.
This article will explain what a calf strain is, how you can help heal it, and what you can do to prevent it from happening again.
What is a Calf Pull? A calf pull is a strain between two muscles in the calf: the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The soleus is the flat muscle on the back of the calf. It is the plantar flexor muscle of the ankle. It’s responsible for exerting powerful forces onto the ankle joint. The gastroc has the job of plantar flexing the foot at the ankle and joint and flexing the leg at the knee joint. A calf pull happens when those internal muscles are overstretched.
A small strain can leave you feeling a little bit of pain that you can deal with; usually you can walk, but it’s uncomfortable. A severe strain causes sharp pain, and walking will probably be extremely difficult.
How Do I Treat a Calf Pull?
Flex: First and foremost, you have to keep flexing the calf, all day, no matter what. This will increase the blood flow into the injured muscle and help clear out the damaged tissue.
Walk: Next, you have to walk on it—no matter how much it hurts. Walk a little more each day, and you will see as the muscle warms up that you will be able to walk longer and longer.
Massage: You also will want to get a massage from a qualified massage therapist, OR massage it yourself. Once again, this will flush out the damaged tissue. You can do this yourself, but you won't be able to get into the muscle as deeply as massage therapist can. Investing in professional treatment will make the healing process that much quicker.
Hot/Cold Contrast: Personally, I’ve found the contrast or the “hot/cold method” to be very effective.
1. Get two HUGE buckets—one filled with ice water, the other with hot water (as hot as you can stand).
2. Submerge your calf in the cold water for four minutes. Then move your injured leg to the bucket of hot water for as long as you can stand it.
3. Repeat for 20 minutes.
4. Finish with the cold water, always.
This may be a miserable strategy, but it will help you heal more quickly. The ice helps reduce the inflammation from the pull; the heat flushes the damaged muscle tissue and increases blood flow.
Heel lifts: Another way to ease the pain of the calf strain or pull is to use a heel lift in your shoe. This will raise up the heel and the calf, shortening the muscles and putting less stress on the calf. They come in various thicknesses from 1-10mm. You can probably purchase these at your local running store. If not, check the web for online retailers.
How Do You Avoid Calf Pulls?
The easiest way to avoid calf pulls is to prepare your lower legs for the strain of training. One approach is to incorporate mobility exercises before each workout. This should always be done before running. Foam rolling, squats, lunges and leg swings will help warm up the muscles and get your ankles and hips a little more limber. Please see the video here.
Foam rolling: While lying on your back, place your lower leg on the foam roller. Cross over the opposite leg, put pressure on the leg that’s on the roller, and roll back and forth, putting as much pressure as you can allow. Focus on the back of the calf as well as the sides of the calf.
Leg swings (front and side to side): Don’t discount the leg swings. Opening up tight hips will reduce stress on the lower legs. Many runners and triathletes neglect this simple technique. And the more you sit in your daily life, the more you should do this exercise!
"Farmer Carry" / Toe Walk: Walking on your heels will help with mobility and can be incorporated into any program as well. Raise your heels off the ground and try to walk on your toes. Start with a short distance to get started. This exercise can be made more challenging while carrying a weight, such as a 10-pound dumbbell. This will strengthen the calves and reduce the risk of a muscle strain or pull.
Summary: Calf pulls and strains can be avoided. If you prepare your lower legs for the strain of training, you’ll be able to focus on training for your season goals instead of recovering from injury. I hope you’ll find these exercises valuable in your quest for an injury-free season.
Mike Ricci, USAT Coach of the Year, and USAT Level 3 Elite Coach. He is the owner and founder of the D3 Multisport coaching group, through which he coaches all levels of athletes from beginner to elite. Mike is also the former head coach of the University of Colorado Triathlon Team, and guided them to 4 consecutive collegiate National Championship titles from 2010-2013. Mike has written training plans for Team USA several times, was the USAT World Team Coach in 2017, and has helped many athletes to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.