The Role of the Calves in Running
Runners basically require every muscle in their bodies to be strong in order to run well and with less risk of injury. Even knowing this we continue to pick and choose what body parts we feel are more important when fitting in exercise. What ends up happening is we run out of time during our weeks and squeeze in a few squats and lunges, and maybe a couple of core exercises and head on our way to run. One muscle group that is often ignored is the calves, which are composed of two different muscles—the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Runners are not the only ones who require these areas to function at their best, but everyone is in need of strong and flexible calves for basic daily activities.
The basic function of the calf muscles is to lift the heels up and shift the body weight onto the toes. This motion is required for pushing off during stepping, whether running or walking, as well as climbing stairs. The other important role of the calves is for circulation. These muscles are in charge of pumping blood and fluids out of the lower legs and up to the heart. They perform this function by compressing the veins around them when contracting, forcing blood upward and out of the area. When the calf muscles are relaxed, especially for prolonged periods of time such as when sitting at work, the veins in the muscles and the surrounding area fill up with blood and fluid causing swelling.
Calves for Runners
The calf muscles are in charge of that final push-off during running to propel our bodies upward and forward. They play a crucial role in our stride length and pace. Since this muscle group is smaller than the other main groups higher up in the legs, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, they fatigue at a much quicker rate during runs. During long runs and races, our slowed pace may be greatly due to the calves tiring out. Even if the hip flexors are significantly strong to drive our knees high during a stride or our quads strong enough to extend our leading leg far forward to lengthen our stride, our pace gets affected if the calves are too weak and tired to push off efficiently.
Runners must rely on the feet and ankles in order to keep sufficient balance. Running, especially fast running is considered a single leg balance movement, therefore our stability is important in order to master faster paces. The calf muscles play a role in this stability as they provide the strength required to prevent swaying forward. If the calves are not strong enough for this role, the end result is increased stress to the Achilles tendon. The same goes for insufficient strength for the push-off—the Achilles will have to take the load. Achilles tendon issues such as tendinitis and strains can be a prolonged and limiting condition for runners, which may lead to tendon tears—an issue that will leave you out of running for several months to over a year.
Runners should incorporate exercises for the calf muscles two to three days per week, along with proper stretching techniques after runs. Focusing on both the gastrocnemius and soleus groups and other supporting ankle muscles is key to keeping proper stability in the feet and ankles. Basic standing heel raises are the most common way to strengthen the calves, but since the gastrocnemius group has two heads—the lateral and medial heads, ideally one should also perform heel raises with their toes pointing outwards as well as inwards. To strengthen the soleus muscle group, heel raises should be performed with the knees bent, as in a squat if standing or simply sitting with a dumbbell or other weight over the thighs for added resistance.
To keep the calves flexible, stretching after runs is important. The easiest stretch is to place the balls of the feet on a step, keeping the heel on the ground and lean the body forward. Keeping the knee straight will mostly stretch the gastrocnemius muscles while performing with the knee bent hits the soleus more effectively. Foam rolling is also another great way to break up any adhesions in the muscle groups that are causing tightness. Significantly tight calves are what leads to Achilles tendon strains, therefore runners should emphasize flexibility exercises as much as possible.
Other effective exercises to keep the calves strong and ready for running are plyometrics. Jumping rope, box jumps, squat jumps and any other explosive movements are great additions to your exercise program that will strengthen the fast twitch muscle fibers of the calves and Achilles tendon. Strong fast-twitch fibers are required to form an efficient push-off during running. Adding in one or two plyometric moves to your warm-up routine before easy runs or in between other exercises is an easy way to incorporate calf strengthening even if you are short on time. If you want to be a fast runner, you must keep in mind that stronger muscles are needed for faster paces.