Calf Strain : Running Injuries

Calf pain is a common complaint in running and is often worsened if runners try to ignore a slight calf injury and continue training. Becoming dehydrated, changing your training regime or increasing the amount of running you do can also increase the risk of a calf strain.

The Calf Muscle

The calf is found at the back of the lower leg and is made up of three muscles: the medial and lateral gastrocnemius, and the soleus. The gastrocnemius muscles start at the back of the knee behind the femur and join to the back of the heel with the Achilles tendon. The soleus muscle lies underneath the other muscles at the back of lower leg and is the most active muscle of the three when the knee is in a bent position.

How Does a Calf Strain Occur?

If the calf is stretched beyond its capacity, the muscle fibres can become torn. There are three degrees of severity:

  • A 1st degree strain only causes a few of the muscle fibres to become torn.
  • A 2nd degree strain is slightly more serious and causes more fibres to be torn.
  • A 3rd degree strain could result in a complete rupture of the calf muscle.

Neglecting to warm up and cool down properly before and after running is a key cause of calf strains. Over-pronation is also a common cause because the imbalance of your running stride puts far too much pressure on the calf muscle and Achilles tendon, causing the muscle to become weak and unstable. Dehydration or having certain mineral deficiencies, especially calcium and magnesium, is another major cause of calf strain in runners.  Doing a lot of hill running or suddenly increasing the amount of running you do can also result in a calf strain.

What are the Symptoms of a Calf Strain?

The symptoms depend on whether you have a 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree strain:

  • 1st degree strains will result in cramp, tightness in the muscle and stretching or contracting the muscles may feel painful.
  • 2nd degree strains cause the pain to be more intense and immediate; bruising will appear after a couple of days and the calf will be sore to touch.
  • 3rd degree strains will make moving very painful and the damaged tissues in the calf muscle may protrude outwards.

How Can a Calf Strain Be Prevented?

It is vital to stay hydrated at all times and if you have a mineral deficiency you should alter your diet and consider taking supplements. Hydrated, healthy muscles are much less likely to become damaged. Adequate preparation before you start running will also reduce the risk of calf strains because the muscles will be more flexible and less vulnerable to injury.

How is a Calf Strain Treated?

How a calf strain is treated will depend on how severe the strain is. Immediately after sustaining the injury runners should stop immediately and apply the RICE method of treatment (rest, ice, compression, elevation). Resting will help to prevent further damage; ice, compression bandages and elevating the leg will decrease pain and swelling. A mild strain may require 7-10 days of rest before you can resume running again. A more serious strain may require several months of rest.

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