How to Treat Chronic Calf Pain From Running
Any runner knows that the constant pounding of a run can take a toll on your body and lead to injuries. One of the most frustrating injuries is chronic calf pain. This type of pain can range from a moderate soreness all the way to a full-on, run-stopping, hot-knife, needle-stabbing pain.
Calf pain and calf injuries are very difficult to recover from, but there are simple ways that any runner can treat this condition at home. Not only can you treat the pain itself but you can take steps to prevent it altogether. After suffering for several years from this pain, I found that there are ways to recover—and in this article I will share the methods that worked for me.
What Causes Calf Pain
Overuse of any muscle will lead to pain, inflammation and potential injury. Overuse in calf muscles will occur with running on an excessive amount of hills, extremely soft surfaces such as sand or mud, running in old or worn out running shoes, excessive speed workouts, or simply running more miles that you allow yourself adequate recovery for. From this type of injury you will feel sore, and your calf muscles will feel week or tire.
Strain / Sprain
Even a mild strain of a calf muscle will lead to a much more intense pain. Often this pain will start out mild and increase as you continue a run. You may simply step wrong or push too hard when you are fatigued, and cause a minor strain. This injury is acute, and although not a traumatic blow to your health, should be dealt with carefully.
Tear / Micro-tears / Scar tissue
One of the most dreaded running injuries, the calf 'heart attack' is when you severely strain your calf muscles causing tears, big or small (micro-tears). These tears create scar tissue that will build in your calf with each successive tear. This facilitates the creation of new tears in the muscle and creates a partial recovery to injury cycle in many runners who do not take the necessary steps to heal and treat the injury. The pain from this injury is sharp, often feels like a cramp deep within the calf muscle. This is a serious injury that will continually re-surfance unless you follow a very persistent treatment regimen.
Minor Calf Pain And Soreness Treatment
To treat minor calf pain, treat as you would any muscle soreness. Most importantly, rest your muscles by avoiding unnecessary hill work, soft surfaces and speed workouts. If you have to take a day or two off for the pain, do not rush back into a hard workout. Make sure you are recovered before pushing yourself. Slowing your pace down on runs will also help you heal from the pain.
Stretch your calves after exercise, and lightly massage them to speed blood to the muscles. Elevation and ice will help reduce inflammation and soreness while taking anti-inflammatory medicines such as Advil or Aleve help keep inflammation down for extended periods of time. Compression socks are a good way to increase blood flow to your lower legs and keep your calf muscles feeling less tired and sore during long runs. Many marathoners have turned to using compression style socks for this very reason.
Moderate to Severe Calf Pain Treatment
As previously mentioned, severe calf strains and tears can build scar tissue in your calf muscle. Often times after continuous injury the sheath around the muscle is not flexible enough or contains scar tissue and will lead to injury when the calf muscles are pushed. This leads to, (as I have personally experienced) a tendency to re-injure the muscle if the problem is not dealt with properly. Scar tissue and micro tears mean that trying to treat with traditional methods will lead to re-injury.
The first step to treatment is always rest. Rest until you can walk without pain or discomfort, both on flat and hilly surfaces. If the pain is still there after a week, or if there is bruising from a tear, you should see a professional sports physician for evaluation. The key to my recovery was massage, lots and lots of it. Find a sports physician and massage therapist if you can, as professional massage and Active Release Technique (ART) treatments are immensely helpful. Self massage should be done with a foam roller or a self massage device at least twice if not three times a day. Massaging an injured calf muscle was not overly enjoyable, often the professional massage was downright painful when using massage to break up scar tissue and relax the sheath around my muscle. However, the benefits were undeniable and this was the key to my recovery.
Once I felt normal, I went back into the sport slowly. Running a mile or two at a time, continuing massage, and gradually incorporating stretching into my routine. If your calf ever begins to feel sore, or starts to tighten, stop. It may be frustrating, but re-tearing and injuring your muscle will be more of a setback than having to walk half of your workout. As The injury heals, incorporate more stretching and maintain massage at least once a day, after a workout preferably. I still see a sports physician for monthly massage treatments when I am training for a race, as they can better evaluate what my or may not be happening.
Stay Hydrated, Focused and Rested
Chronic muscle injuries often occur as we push ourselves in times of physical distress. Dehydration, tired muscles, and lack of concentration will lead to unnecessary stress on your muscles and bad form. Making an effort to keep your self generally hydrated and healthy will pay dividends when trying to avoid chronic injury. When you feel tired and hydrated don't push yourself to the point of injury. Cutting a workout short or slowing down one day is better than another two weeks on the couch.