Why Do My Calves Hurt When I Run?

It’s normal to feel some pain when you’re running. In the end, you’re putting stress on all of the muscle groups in your legs, so some pain is necessary.

What’s not normal is to feel a sharp pain in your calves when you run. Aside from the regular muscle burning, you shouldn’t be feeling any pain.

So, why do my calves hurt when I run?

Your calves may be hurting for a lot of reasons. More often than not, it’s a calf strain that’ll go away after a couple of days and some rest. But some other times, the condition is more serious. Here’s everything you may need to know about the matter.

Why Do My Calves Hurt When I Run?

If your calves hurt you every time you run, or you feel a sudden sharp pain amid your daily training schedule, it’s your cue that something is wrong. The reason is either a medical condition or another cause. Let’s explore both possibilities.

why do my calves hurt when i run: man holding his calf muscle in pain

Medical Conditions

Your calves will often be hurting because of a calf strain, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other conditions that may be causing the pain. Runners are often prone to a number of injuries. Here’s a brief roundup.

Calf Strain

A calf strain is a common injury among runners, especially beginners and people just getting into running.

When you’re running, you put huge stress on the biggest muscle in your calf, called the gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius is the calf muscle that lies at the back of your lower leg. You can see it bulging out if you work out a lot.

The muscle absorbs every shock your legs receive during running, and it supports your weight to propel you forward, so it’s one of the most affected muscles by any form of physical activity. When this muscle is strained, you’ll feel some pain in your calves while running.

You may strain it by running too fast or increasing the intensity without stretching. It may also get pulled because of a wrong move or a fall. In all cases, it’ll be the main culprit for the pain you’re feeling.

Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome

Chronic exertional compartment syndrome is common among runners and athletes, so you’ve probably already heard of it before. It’s an exercise-induced condition that affects both muscles and nerves, and it usually results from activities with repetitive motions, like running.

CECS is a serious condition that often needs surgery. Sometimes, it’s treated without one if the patient responds to treatment, but other times, it’ll need surgery to relieve the pressure off the nerves.

An athlete can have CECS in their arms or legs, but in runners, it’s more common in the lower leg’s four compartments. These four compartments are the anterior, lateral, deep posterior, and superficial posterior. Each of them includes a number of muscles and tendons.

People with CECS usually report feeling numbness in the affected leg, along with a feeling of tightness and overall weakness. Some runners also develop foot drops, and some others see swelling.

The pain is usually consistent, getting worse as you do any form of physical activity. It should stop when you stop running or exercising and start again when you put stress on your calf muscles or project them to impact.

If you suspect you have CECS, it’s better to visit a doctor as soon as you can to start the treatment.

Muscle Tear

While a muscle strain is overstretching a muscle or a tendon, a tear is the overstretching of the muscle up to the point that it tears. They both happen for the same reasons, but a muscle tear takes longer to fix and may need physical therapy.

When you tear a muscle in your calf while running, you’ll feel it on the spot. But, unlike a pulled muscle, the pain will be intense, sharp, and sudden. The area will also swell, and you may see some bruising.

The results will generally differ according to the muscle you tore. The gastrocnemius will feel as if someone kicked you in the calf if it gets torn, and you won’t be able to balance yourself on your feet.

On the other hand, some less vital muscles, like the soleus, will be less painful. You’ll feel like your calf is tight, and the pain will worsen when you keep running. However, the pain won’t be as sudden or shocking as it is with larger muscles.

Shin Splint

If the pain in your calf is specifically near the shin, you may be suffering a case of shin splints, or medial tibial stress, as some call it.

Shin splints aren’t dangerous, and they usually go away on their own after some rest and ice. However, they can develop into stress fractures when left untreated or when you keep running even when in pain.

There are usually some signs that give away shin splints, so you can predict the diagnosis before you visit the doctor. You’ll feel like your calf is stiff, and you’ll notice tenderness along the inner side of the bone. Some people also encounter some swelling in the lower leg.

Shin splints are relatively easy to treat by the RICE method, but you’ll want to consult a doctor if the case doesn’t improve. When shin splints are severe, they may last for a few months.

Why Do My Calves Hurt When I Run: Other Reasons

Although medical conditions are more common, the reason for your calf pain may be something else. Here are some common causes among runners.

Wrong Shoes

Wearing the wrong shoes doesn’t only put you off your game when running; it also makes you more prone to overuse injuries. Runners don’t only wear shoes to protect their feet; they need the shoes to provide good balance and stability and keep their soles comfortable.

Each time your feet hit the ground, it resounds on your whole body, so choosing the right shoes is a must.

Make sure the shoes of your choice have a drop of at least 8-12 degrees. If the shoes are flatter, you’re risking putting more stress on your calf muscles and ankles while running.

The shoes should also have a comfortable sole and a molded upper with a soft material. It shouldn’t be slipping out of your feet while running, and the heel shouldn’t be too rigid.

Overuse

With running, there’s always a chance you’re overdoing it. Your muscles have a limit, and pushing them beyond their limit will end in pain. So, if your calf is hurting when you run, and there aren’t any clear signs of a serious injury, the reason may be as simple as overuse.

For one, you need to consider the flexibility and strength of your muscles.

If you’re merely starting your journey as a runner, don’t expect to be able to cover large distances without feeling a toll on your body.

Additionally, you should know your limits. Try not to go for a very long run suddenly, and don’t switch shoe styles while keeping the same training intensity. You’ll need to give your feet time to adapt to the new shoes first.

If the pain isn’t sharp or consistent, and there’s no swelling, your problem is probably that you’re overloading your muscles.

In this case, don’t miss out on your stretches, and stay within your limits.

How to Know the Difference Between Different Kinds of Ankle Pain

To know whether your calf pain is a serious injury or a mild strain, you need to be able to differentiate between different kinds of pain. Some people feel a dull ache, and others feel a sharp, sudden pain. Others feel a consistent, mild pain. Each of these can mean a different kind of injury.

Side view of a young man getting his leg examined

Here’s a roundup.

Tissue Strain

Tissue strains often give you a dull ache in your calves that starts when you stretch and persists while you’re running. You should feel the pain when stretching the calf muscles, and it’ll eventually get worse when you keep running for long. It may not be noticeable at the beginning of your run, but it’ll definitely progress.

The right way to go then is to rest for a couple of days, applying ice and observing to see if there’s any progress. The reason for the pain is most likely a muscle strain or a microtear. These injuries are often a result of overuse and overloading your muscles.

Muscle Tear

If the pain you’re feeling is sharp and sudden, the issue is likely a muscle tear that occurred on the spot. More often than not, the pain will prevent you from finishing the run. You may also see an array of different symptoms, depending on the severity of your injury.

Some runners will see swelling and bruising, and others will have discoloration on the skin. You may also feel tenderness on the affected area.

The sharp pain usually occurs when you suddenly change direction or increase the intensity of your training. By putting a sudden force on your calf muscles, you may be causing a tear or another injury without being mindful of it.

Chronic Condition

If you’re suffering from a chronic condition, the pain won’t be snappy or sharp. It’ll be consistent, increasing when you keep running and stopping a while after you rest. It’ll feel like a mild cramp, except the pain won’t go away as you keep running. On the contrary, it’ll become worse, but it’ll be tolerable.

Most runners with a chronic condition report that the pain doesn’t keep them from continuing running. It’s like a nagging feeling at the back of your mind while running, but it can prevent you from increasing the intensity of your run.

In this case, the best thing you can do is consult a doctor as soon as possible. If you have a chronic condition, it’ll likely need a lot of time to heal. So, you should work on starting the treatment at the nearest time possible.

How to Alleviate Calf Pain Using the R.I.C.E. Method

Runners treat calf strains the same way they treat most injuries in their legs and ankles: using the RICE method. The RICE method goes as follows:

Icing calves

  • Rest: You need to rest for a couple of days until your muscles are fully healed. Running is a no-no in this phase. Some rest phases extend to a month, depending on the severity of the strain.
  • Ice: You need to apply ice to the affected area to tone down the swelling and relieve the pain. Keep doing it for two days after the injury.
  • Compression: Apply compression to the area after removing the ice to make sure the swelling doesn’t come up again. Keep the compression gentle as not to cause pain, but tight enough to prevent swelling.
  • Elevation: Raise your legs off the level of your body to reduce the pain and prevent swelling. The rule of thumb is to keep the injured area above the level of your heart.

How to Treat a Mild Calf Strain

Mild calf strains usually go away on their own, and they won’t always need physical therapy. If you’re sure your injury is no more than a strain, you can follow these steps to treat it.

Massage

Massaging calves

If the strained area is causing you pain, you can apply some self-massage after stretching it to ease the pain. But first, stretch your legs in a lunge position to make sure the muscles aren’t cramped.

You can always use a massage gun if you can’t do it using your hands, but make sure its intensity is reasonable.

If the message isn’t working, it’s better to apply an ice pack. Just grab a bag of ice and wrap it in a thick towel, then wrap it around the affected muscle. This should alleviate the pain for a while.

Use NSAIDs

Woman taking pill

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are sold over the counter, and they’ll improve your pain a lot if you take them in the recommended doses. Most doctors will recommend naproxen or ibuprofen. Both will help with the pain for the first couple of days after the injury.

However, you shouldn’t take them for more than 2—3 days without asking a doctor.

Stretch

man stretching his calves at the wall

If you have a mild calf strain, you can treat it by resting and doing some stretches. To make sure the injury is mild, try stretching a couple of muscles. If the pain is mild and tolerable, you’re good to go. If you’re feeling constant pain with stretching, you likely need to stop and ask a doctor.

As a rule of thumb, you should stretch slowly and hold each position for at least 20 seconds. You’ll also want to stretch both sides, even if only one side is injured. This ensures your muscles stay balanced.

Lastly, make sure not to jump on your feet while stretching to prevent putting further pressure on the affected tendon.

Physical Therapy

If the pain isn’t going away, you may want to see a physical therapist to start therapy. Most athletes do it when they need their muscles to heal fast for the next race. And sometimes, it’s the only option to return back to normal.

Physical therapists will usually carry out deep tissue massages to heal the affected area, and some doctors may suggest hydrotherapy.

You’ll want to talk to your therapist and choose the best way to go according to the severity of your strain.

Why Warming Up Is Essential Before Running

If you skip your warming up steps when you’re not in the mood, think again. Skipping the warm-ups is dangerous and puts you at a higher risk of developing an injury.

To convince you further, let’s look at the anatomy of your calves. Each calf runs from your knee to your heels, particularly from the medial and lateral attachment to the Achilles tendon.

When you fail to warm up this area, you’re not only putting your calves at risk, but your heels, knees, and all tendons in the area as well.

When you run, the muscles in this area work in harmony. Most of the pressure applied to the calf muscles is absorbed by the Achilles tendon, thanks to its elasticity. If the Achilles tendon isn’t elastic enough, the pressure is all applied to your calves, increasing your chances of feeling pain.

When you fail to warm up before running, the Achilles tendon won’t be stretched, and so it’ll put more stress on your calf muscles. So, needless to say, warming up isn’t an option; it’s mandatory.

How to Prevent Calf Pain When Running

Prevention is always better than treatment, so while we’re at it, here are some tips to prevent calf pain when running.

  • Rest: Try not to exercise your calves two days in a row. Always have at least one day of rest to lift the pressure off your calves and let your muscles heal in an adequate amount of time.
  • Stretch: Never run without stretching and warming up, especially in the cold weather because your muscles get extra tight when the temperature is low.
  • Hydrate: Make sure you’re drinking enough water while running because dehydration can have a drastic toll on your muscles. You’ll also want to have sports drinks when you can to maintain your energy.
  • Don’t overdo slopes: Try not to include slopes in your running plan every day because they put more stress on your calf muscles. Only train on a hill once or twice a week, and keep most of your training schedule on even surfaces.
  • Choose the right shoes: If you have flat feet, ask for professional help when buying your shoes to get the right ones. The same goes if you have low or high arches to make sure you’re getting comfortable shoes.
  • Try yoga: Yoga stretches your muscles and prevents similar strains from occurring. So, you might want to enroll in a yoga class alongside your running schedule.

Closing Thoughts On Why Do My Calves Hurt When I Run

If your calves are hurting when you’re running, the first assumption is that you’re overloading them. If the pain isn’t sharp or sudden, there’s a high chance you only need some rest and ice, and the pain will subside.

If the condition is more serious than that, you may want to see a doctor and know for sure. Chances are, it’s either a muscle tear or a chronic condition.

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