Ask the physio: Calf tears

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Q I started running only 18 months ago, though I’ve always cycled regularly. I’ve been getting calf tears, particularly in faster run sessions. Can you help? 

Richard, Dorking


The problem

I see people with calf tears a few times a year in my clinic – usually when they have changed something in their routine. This could be footwear, training tempo or, like you, when they’ve moved from one activity to another.

Regular cycling does give you strong calf muscles, but there is a tendency to pedal with the toes down and heels up. Over time, this can have a shortening effect because the calf doesn’t go through its full range of motion, as it will when you’re running.

Your calf performs a fast and large contraction when you run. As the foot strikes the ground the calf stretches further than it does when you’re cycling – and the stress on the muscle caused by this extra movement can result in a tear.

Performing a static calf stretch (holding the stretch for 45 seconds) at random times throughout the day will help to lengthen the muscle. Then you can add in range-of-movement or dynamic stretches before you run – for example, toe walking, where you plant your foot toes first and then drop your heels a little closer to the ground with each mini-step. Progress to doing this up a slight incline – the increased angle will make the move more challenging.

If you do feel your calf tighten when you’re out on a run, stop straight away and perform a gentle static stretch; this will help to loosen the muscle and allow you to complete the run.

The fix

To strengthen your calves, do four sets of 20 slow, single-leg heel drops on each leg from a step. It takes six to eight weeks for soft-tissue injuries to heal, but the rehab you do during the injury and afterwards is more important than the time off. To keep the injury at bay in the future, do this exercise, and those mentioned above, daily – they’ll be a lot less disruptive to your training than a six-week injury break. 

Paul Hobrough is founder of Physio&Therapy UK.