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Tight Calves During Running

Tight Calves During Running: Solutions Beyond Stretching for Lasting Relief

calves chronic tightness exercises and drills glutes mobility Dec 14, 2023

Understanding tight calves during running. The fix is not more stretching! How to fix tight calves when running. Hint it’s not just stretching!

Chronically tight calves are a common problem for runners. Its effects can range from simply being annoying, to limiting ankle dorsiflexion making it harder to move over that foot through stance, to more significant issues like Achilles tendinopathies and plantar fasciitis.

Chronic calves can also be an indication that you are not able to effectively use your glute, which we know is super important to an efficient running stride.

Understanding the Problem: Why Your Calves Are Always Tight

Stretching and foam rolling *might* make it feel better in the short term but do little to help in the long term.

Instead, let’s get curious about that tightness and get at the “why” they are tight all the time in the first place.

1 - Check your stack.

It’s possible (and very common) that you are “falling forward” somewhere higher up and your calves are working overtime to make sure you don’t fall on your face. This is what we are going to explore more here.

2 - Check your feet. 

Your feet need to move through pronation and supination with each step. Missing movement and strength here means more stress on your calves. Go check out this blog post for more on improving foot strength and mobility. 

3 - Check your glutes.

When we toe off we want the push to come from the tush (your glutes) through hip extension. When you don’t efficiently use your glutes at toe-off, the calves often have to do more of the work.

More on this below after we look at the stack. You’ll see when we get to the glutes that the stack matters there too!


Connecting the Dots: Tight Calves, Falling Forward, and an Anterior Pelvic Tilt

As I mentioned above, many people tend to live in a posture with their center of mass (COM) more forward. Let’s connect the dots between that forward COM and chronically tight calves. 

The images above illustrate what I mean when I say forward COM. Not everyone will look like this because often our body layers strategies on top to help “pull us back.” You might drop your chest and tuck your bottom and you often will overuse those calves and or grip the ground with your toes to make sure you don’t fall on your face!

So “why” is the COM forward in the first place? And are there “better” strategies we can give the body for shifting it back more naturally instead of pushing or pulling it back in the ways mentioned above?

First, we need to understand where that forward fall is coming from: the ribs and the pelvis.

At the ribs, we might see a rib flare on the front with some extra compression on the back of the ribs. Made worse if you’ve even been told to squeeze your shoulder blade together!

At the pelvis, we might see a tip forward (anterior pelvic tilt).

Again, many people will layer onto this by dropping their chest by sort of crunching down from the top and/or squeezing their glutes to tuck their bottom under. That's a strategy that your body might use to find that stack, but it’s maybe not the best strategy as far as movement efficiency.

What strategy can we give your body that might be better?

How to Get your Center of Mass Back and Give your Calves More Lasting Relief

To get your COM back and give you calves more lasting relief we need to address the ribs and the pelvis.

At the ribs, we need to get expansion in the back while learning to bring those low ribs down in the front without crunching down from the top.

At the pelvis, we need to learn to tuck the pelvis under without squeezing the glutes and just shoving the pelvis more forward.

…together this is finding that “stack” I'm always talking about.

Here are a few strategies to try:

First work on getting some expansion in those ribs in the back:

You can sit in a chair like this, fold yourself over a bench at the gym, get into a rock back position on the floor, anything to help close off the belly and low ribs and encourage the air to go into your back.

The ball in the video is something I use daily and highly recommend (affiliate link).

Then work on exhaling those low ribs down without crunching down from the top:

You might find it helpful, instead of the "ha" breath suggested here, to hum on your exhales to help you slow it down and exhale more fully. Feel those deep abs turn on!!

Finally work on getting the pelvis under you using your proximal hamstrings, not by just squeezing your glutes.

All three of these can be used as part of your warm-ups and/or as part of a daily practice geared towards giving your body more movement options.

The Glute Connection

I plan to expand more on this in the future but here’s the gist.

When we toe off we want the push to come from the tush (your glutes) through hip extension. When you don’t efficiently use your glutes at toe off, the calves often have to do more of the work.

When it comes to efficiently using your glutes with running, I look at 3 things:

1- That Stack:

Already living in that extension pattern (or squeezing your glutes all the time to tuck out of it) will limit your ability to extend at the hip. Which is necessary for an efficient toe off. Refer to above for a basic plan of action.

2- The Ability to Find Length in the Glute:

Before we toe off we need to load into midstance, what I call truly standing on one leg. This happens through length in the glutes or internal rotation (rotating towards that stance leg).

3- The Ability to Coordinate Hip Extension BEFORE Knee Extension:

While loading into mid-stance requires internal rotation, moving from mid-stance to late stance requires external rotation (rotating away from that stance leg), and then an efficient toe-off requires hip extension before knee extension with big toe dorsiflexion.

When you extend (straighten) at the knee before you finish hip extension you limit your ability to extend through the hip, (aka. use your glute max), the motion then comes from the lower back and the calf and increases loads on the knee. AND you limit the ability to use the power of those glutes (they are big muscles!).

Check out this post for help with those second 2 points.

As you can see nothing, including the calves, work in isolation in the body. When addressing pain, other symptoms, and factors that may be limiting your performance, it’s best to look at the whole body picture.

If you want to see the big picture of how this all connects through your stride. I definitely suggest checking out The Runner’s Lab

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