Calf Tightness in Novice Runners
Calf tightness in novice runners is something we see quite commonly in the clinic. It’s important to remember that when you first start running there will be a certain level of tightness, just due to using different muscles and a different application of force through the ankle, knee and hip. However, problems can occur when we try to continue running without the appropriate supplementary strength and conditioning. Furthermore, secondary issues can occur when we begin to increase our volume of running, change to a firmer surface or even add speed.
As you can see there are many variables that need to be taken into account with a novice runner, but without the appropriate treatment, calf tightness can lead to overuse injuries such as achilles tendinopathy, “shin splints,” compartment syndrome, stress fractures and the list goes on. Therefore, it’s really important to make sure you address ongoing tightness and movement mechanics early as you begin to increase your running volume.
The two most common mechanisms for calf tightness in novice runners are:
1. When people first start running they often start slow. Whilst shuffling along may feel like a good place to start it heavily limits hip extension. The problem with this is your glutes and hamstrings should contribute to hip extension propelling you forward and increasing stride length. Regardless of whether you are not strong enough to do this or your body just doesn’t know how the result is the same. Instead of increasing stride length by using upper hamstrings and glutes to propel you forward, you recruit through the lower hamstring and calf in order to move you forward. Therefore, the running action occurs from knee flexion instead of hip extension. This does two things, firstly you run up and down on the spot and get no forward momentum, and secondly, you overrecruit and tighten up through the calf.
2. A second cause of calf tightness in novice runners relates to proprioception around the ankle. There are very few people who haven’t had some kind of ankle injury at some point in their lives. The problem occurs when the appropriate ligament retraining doesn’t occur post ankle injury. In the ligaments that surround our ankles we have specific receptors that send signals back to our brain to tell us when our joints are getting too close to end range, and to pull them back in line to avoid injury. Very simply put, if we create ligament laxity around the a joint due to an injury, we then have to retrain those ligaments to sense when the joint is moving outside of comfortable ranges and bring it back. This allows the body to make continual small adjustments that keeps the joints within controllable ranges. Therefore, if the body has poor proprioception at the ankle you get an over-recruitment of musculature in the lower limb trying to stabilise the ankle often presenting as calf tightness.
So, what do we do about it?
Well when dealing with novice runners the key is often to address poor neuromuscular development. So, if we take the first scenario the key is teaching the right muscles to do the right movements. If you are over-recruiting through the calf and the upper hamstrings are weak you need to first engage the muscles and then teach them to work within a functional movement. Doing your pre-engagement exercises before going on any run is important to encourage the weak or less dominant muscles to fire and do their job. Upper hamstrings are best engaged in a straight legged position, with the pelvis tucked under. Once you have fired up the upper hamstrings and glutes, use a functional exercise such as a sprinter squat to teach the muscles to work together.
If we take the second scenario you are going to be more focused on dextral control of the ankle. You will start doing this in isolation but, this will need to be integrated into the strength program. Single leg balance on the bosu as well as lateral and forward steps on and off the bosu is key in the beginning. However, this needs to be integrated into reverse lunges onto the bosu and other key unilateral movements that both encourage appropriate neuromuscular development but also teach proprioception at the ankle joint.
As with anything, each person is an individual with their own specific considerations and will require an individualised training program. However, if you are struggling with ongoing calf tightness, this is a good place to start. Feel free to give us a call on 0411 299 110 to book in me for an assessment!
For more articles by Lisa follow the link https://starttraining.net.au/osgood-schlatters-start-training-solutions/
By Lisa Campbell
Accredited Exercise Physiologist – AEP
Australian Representative – Women’s Pole Vault