A common problem in athletes is tight calf muscles, especially in runners. We look at symptoms, causes and treatment options to release muscle tightness.
The calf muscle group consists of the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. The symptoms are a gradual tightening in the calf muscles which can get worse when running or improve while running only to tighten up later.
What causes tight calf muscles?
Tight calf muscles may be caused by a compartment syndrome. This is where the muscle becomes too big for the sheath surrounding the muscle causing pressure, sometimes pain and restricted movement.
Biomechanical problems of the foot or from running style can increase the strain on the calf muscles. Gait analysis on a treadmills can identify this and orthotic inserts may be prescribed to correct this.
Calf muscles may have gradually tightened up over a period of months through not stretching enough before and after training. Tiny micro tears in the muscles cause them to go into spasm. When they are in spasm or contracted then blood cannot easily get into them. The muscles have squeezed the blood out like a sponge. If the muscles do not get enough blood then they will not get enough nutrients and so will tighten up to protect themselves and weaken and so on.
What can the athlete do?
Have the flexibility of the muscles tested and undertake a course of regular calf muscle stretching exercises which should be continued for at least 6 weeks.
See a sports massage therapist who can give a deep massage. Depending on how bad it is they might need three or more treatments. It is important the gap between them is not too long as they will regress back to their original condition.
Use a plantar fasciitis night splint which stretches the muscles over night or at least prevents them from tightening up which often happens over night. The night splint may take a little bit of getting used to but can be very effective in helping to stretch the calf muscles.
Try stretching with a calf stretcher. These come in various designs. The slant board type are good for being a bit more scientific about your stretching in that measuring progress is easier. A rocker type calf stretcher is very effective at achieving a very deep stretch.
Why do I stretch but seem to get nowhere?
You might not be stretching enough even though you think you are. You might be stretching too hard. If you force the muscle the stretch reflex is triggered which contracts it. By going against this you are damaging the muscle. Stretch gently, do not bounce, ease into it and feel the muscle stretching.
If it is just one leg that is tight you could have pressure on the sciatic nerve which causes the tightness. You should get this sorted out first by visiting a professional practitioner.
It might be you have a compartment syndrome. If pain or tightness comes on during a run and eases when resting this may be a possibility.
Try the plantar fasciitis night splint which is worn on the foot over night and is very effective in preventing the calf muscles from tightening up over night.
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