The next question in out series is about rolling the calves. I posted recently about a niggle and received a hefty repsonse from other barefooters who all roll using whatever they have at hand.
I wanted a few tips and so asked the coaches for any advice they may have on rolling out the calf muscles.
I get a lot of questions each week about calf soreness caused by running. Most often runners are describing general soreness that doesn’t particularly stop them from running. They have no history of trauma or injury but just seem to be prone to sore calves. This type of calf soreness will last for a day or two after running and doesn’t occur with other activities.
In my clinical experience the most common causes of this type of calf pain are:
Lack of calf strength or flexibility
Overloading- due to poor technique and/or too much training volume or intensity
Here’s a couple of simple things you can do to improve your calf flexibility. Foam rolling can be a great tool for keeping on top of general soreness. I also like using it prior to stretching- it can really help with mobility exercises in this way.
By strengthening your calf muscles they will fatigue less during running. Don’t do strength work on the days you run – ideally leave a rest day between strength work and running. Calf raises are a popular exercise – these can be performed with either a straight knee (gastrocnemius focus) or bent knee (soleus focus). Start with 3 sets of around 15 reps, 3 x a week. Work to fatigue but don’t push through pain. Gradually increase repetitions as your strength improves.
Technique- a few pointers
Running technique can play a huge part in susceptibility to calf soreness. Many of the runners i see with sore calfs have been trying to change their own running technique. If you keep getting sore calves it is well worth having your running form assessed.
Here’s a couple of calf-freindly technique tips:
Allow your heels to kiss the ground – if you are a mid or forefoot striker make sure you heels gently touch down after landing.
Don’t push off- instead lift your feet and keep your ankles relaxed
Don’t bend forwards- concentrate on keeping tall with your hips forwards
The recommendations here are for general calf fatigue/ soreness, rather than injury treatment. If you think you have injured your calf or have symptoms which are persisting or worsening it is worth seeing a Physiotherapist or Sports Doctor for diagnosis and treatment. If in doubt get it checked out.
Address the symptom by focusing on the system
In answer to your question on tight, knotty calves, I would approach the issue from the following angles:
Doing too much too soon? Think gradual progress
As you rightly point out, may running injuries are caused by doing too much too soon so the first thing you need to address when you get a niggle, pain or injury is your training programme. Adopt the principle of gradual progress. In nature each development stage of a process forms a stable foundation for the next. So think form > distance > speed. You have to have good technique (form) before you can develop and improve.
Body sense and react
When you sense a niggle or pain then you need to do something about it. In the case of your tight calves, foam rolling – Self Myofacial Release (SMR) – is great for reducing adhesions or knots within the matrix of the muscular connective tissue (myofascia). Looking at the body hollistically rather than focusing on the single muscle theory, myofacial meridians wind longitudinally through it’s soft tissue creating a communicating network. See Anatomy Trains (Elsevier 2001) www.anatomytrains.net. One such meridian, the Superficial Back Line runs from the bottom of the toes around the heel, through the calves, up the back of the body, crossing over the head to finish at the top of the eyebrows. So in theory any knots or misalignment along this line will affected the whole back of the body – As you point out, many people find relief from tight calves by rolling out the knots in the plantar fascia. It follows that misalignment of the head could not only affect the muscles in the shoulders but those throughout the whole meridian.
Alignment and relaxation
This approach emphasises the importance of good posture – balance, alignment and proprioception. When running, in mid-stance (balanced on one leg), your body weight should be supported by your structure (bones, ligaments, tendons and tension along the myofacial meridians). If the body is out of alignment muscles are overworked and strain is put on joints such as the ankle, knee and hip and areas of the lower back, shoulders and neck.
When your body is aligned correctly you can then allow the moving parts to relax – so to help prevent tight calves focus on relaxing them, along with ankles and feet, when running. This is important in barefoot and minimalist shoe running. Tense lower legs is often a cause of tight ankles as the runner gets used to the zero drop of natural posture. Also, a common error for barefoot runners is to run on the toes not allowing the heel to touch the ground. Running on your toes limits movement in the heel and reduces support for the back of the body – the Superficial Back Line.
How to apply SMR to the calves
- Sit with legs extended and cross ankles with roller under the affected calf
- Support with your hands and lift your hips off the floor – avoid hunched shoulders and keep a neutral spine (avoid rounded or hyperextend spine)
- Roll up, down and across the muscle until a tender point is found
- Relax and breath steadily throughout
- Stop on the tender point until the discomfort decrease by about 75%
- Continuing rolling to see if there are any other tender points
We often focus too much on the affected area of discomfort. As a Chi Running Instructor I teach the skills of alignment and relaxation, body sensing and gradual progress to new clients and at workshops. These skills are fundamental in building a solid foundation for years of enjoyable running.
In terms of scientific research relating to rolling the calves, I must admit my knowledge is somewhat limited. I have from personal experience used a roller and had ok results from it. I have also, however found that real massage from an experienced sports massage therapist is far better as they can focus on the right spot, direction of pressure and amount of pressure. If a massage is not an option then a roller seems to do an ok job.
However, if you have a thorough warm up, train within your limits and keep your distances and intensities under control, followed by some gentle stretching and enough rest and a good diet, you shouldn’t need to roll your calves or muscles that often. Over training is the main reason for tight and stiff muscles so no amount of rolling will undo that. Cut back a little, check your technique is all good and take a rest week if necessary.
If rolling works for you then keep it up, but just make sure your not in pain due to
pushing yourself too hard. Full transition to barefoot running can take months or
even years if your body has never had to do this before.
Most runners will experience calf niggles at some point and as you say, sometimes rollering can be more useful than traditional stretches.
I’m going to assume that some of the other coaches will have outlined how to perform calf rollering. We have explained how to do it in previous magazine issues and Dr Scott Hadley did a wonderful piece for us about the Achilles Tendon in issue 3 (see the multimedia section of our website:
www.barefootrunninguk.com). Scott also has some Youtube videos with various
self-massage techniques explained and you can visit his website: www.trekoblog.com
There are a few other things you can do to avoid (or at least limit) tenderness in the calf muscles. As you mentioned, using a tennis/hockey/golf ball underneath your feet can help to reduce tightness in the calf muscles. You can also just ‘knead’ the soles of your feet with your fingers and thumbs. It’s a little bit like kneading dough – start
gently, just pressing your feet and mobilizing them using your hands and you’ll start to feel them loosen off.
Also, have a think about the times when you’re contracting your calf muscles during the day. Wearing a shoe with a raised heel (of any height) will limit the range of movement through the calf muscles over time. Take your shoes off whenever you can (no one can see when your feet are underneath your desk at work) and point and flex your feet as well as circle your ankles.
Another thing to look at is how you sleep: do you sleep on your back underneath heavy covers? This can cause you to sleep with your toes slightly pointed which can cause cramp and tightness. Similarly, sleeping on your front will put your feet in the same position.
Maintaining range of movement and pliability in the calf complex are the most important things, so make sure you routinely practice calf raises on a step, lifting all the way up on the balls of your feet, then lowering your heel down as far as it will go. Simply bending and straightening your knees, keeping your heels on the ground, when you’re waiting for a train or for the kettle to boil will help maintain freedom through the calf and ankle.
I was recently pointed towards a YouTube clip by our friend, Dr Stig Walsh, which shows a whole range of foot exercises explained by Dr Andreo Spina. Worth a look, although some of the exercises are pretty challenging so take it gradually: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OOJ9AQ1AEg
Finally, keeping well hydrated, ensuring you have rest days from exercise and cross training will also help limit calf niggles, as well as making sure that when you do run, you’re running with sound technique either barefoot or in a light, flexible shoe.”
If you have a question then conatct Chris or join in the chat at our facebook group. We are a friendly, supportive group and you will be made very welcome.