It’s one of the most common things I hear as a triathlon physiotherapist. Tight calves or DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) through the calf complex can occur in athletes, no matter what the duration or intensity level of their training. But, is this just a normal part of training for the sport or can you do something about it?
Tight or painful calves are often reported the morning after a track session, but just as commonly can occur following a hard hilly bike or after introducing longer runs into your programme.
It’s important that you report any symptoms to a physiotherapist, as reoccurring tightness/soreness or aggravation, happening for seemingly no reason, may indicate an underlying injury to the muscles of the calf or Achilles tendon.
There are a number of factors you can consider to ensure that your calf health is as good as possible to allow full training:
■ Correct footwear.
■ Podiatry assessment and the use of insoles if indicated.
■ Planned weekly training, so that intense sessions are spread throughout the week, allowing sufficient recovery time.
■ A graded increase in training as your workout volume and intensity builds.
■ A structured stretching and foam roller programme, targeting specific tight spots.
■ Regular soft tissue therapy.
Ensuring sufficient recovery is essential post training sessions, so consider nutritional and hydration status too.
>>> Nine tips for dodging injury and illness as a triathlete
There are lots of other aids and devices that are said to be effective to help recovery, including ice baths, compression garments and electrical stimulation machines. If you’re considering these, look into their pros and cons and effects thoroughly, and find what works individually for you and your training.
Pick the right footwear
We mention footwear repeatedly when discussing injuries, as it can be a contributing or easing factor in so many cases. So how do you know you’re in the right shoe, and what other factors need to be considered when choosing them?
Fit for your foot type: Where possible, get an assessment of your foot type (either through a run shop or podiatrist). This will give you an indication of the type of shoe you need: neutral, pronation control, etc.
Insoles: If you’re prescribed insoles, get advice on the type of shoe it should be placed in. Also wear the insole in gradually, normally for an hour on day one, increasing by an hour a day until you’re using the insole and are comfortable for 7 hours; then commence your running.
Shoe vs terrain: It may be necessary to have several pairs of trainers if you vary your running between road, track and trails.
Renewal: Keep an eye on the sole of the trainer. All trainers are only built to do a certain number of miles before the shock absorption begins to fail. When this happens, a new pair will be needed.
Warning! If you always buy the same type/make of shoe, check that these are consistent. Some manufacturers bring out a new shoe each season with the same name, but the structure of the shoe has changed.
Trainers for you: Finally/obviously, make sure you’re happy and comfortable in the shoe. Good running shops will have a treadmill so you can try the shoe for a good 5–10mins of running before buying.
Simple calf exercises for endurance
A tight calf or niggle in the muscle may be due to your running or landing biomechanics, but more often than not it’s a loading issue. The calf complex is either unable to cope with the amount or type of load you’re putting through the calf or it’s having to work too hard to compensate for weaknesses in its surrounding musculature.
Below are a number of exercises that are helpful to build calf endurance, hopefully reduce post- training and racing DOMs and allow you to maintain the consistency in training that will help you perform at your very best, injury-free.