Exercising & Calf Pain

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A common complaint with exercise, particularly cardio training, is calf pain. Calf pain can be caused by a number of reasons, from structural problems to water intake. Symptoms of calf pain may appear during or after training. Left untreated, calf pain may result in a serious injury. A medical evaluation is strongly suggested for calf pain lasting more than a few days.


The back of your lower leg contains three calf muscles. The gastrocnemius is the largest muscle, starting above your knee, followed by the soleus and tibialis posterior, which starts below your knee. All three muscles attach to your Achilles tendon and insert into your heel. Your calf muscles contract to point your toe down and lift your heel up. The muscles stretch when you pull your toe up, working opposite your shin muscles.


Your calves work to point and flex your foot, which is a vital part of most movements. With most sports, you push off the playing surface by contracting your calves. For dancers, as well as basketball and volleyball players, and track and field athletes, vertical jump heights depend on the explosive ability of your calf muscles. Enduring calf pain with training will inhibit your athletic performance. Left untreated, serious injuries are more likely to occur.


Calf pain can vary from a dull ache or cramp to a sharp pain. Pain can be accompanied with tightness, bruising and swelling. Pain can occur while performing a movement such as walking or jogging, or may not appear until after the workout is completed.


Mechanical causes of calf pain include poor running form, running on your toes, poor footwear, inflexibility, overtraining and an inadequate warmup prior to training. Pain can be the result of a strain to the muscle or Achilles tendon, muscle or tendon tear or a muscle imbalance. Serious medical conditions associated with calf pain include poor circulation, blood clots and dehydration.


Stretching is recommended for flexibility problems resulting in a tightness in the calf muscles. Pulling your toes toward your knees will stretch your calves. Cramping due to dehydration can be treated with proper hydration, including water or electrolyte drinks. Muscular imbalance problems can be reversed by strengthening your shins and stretching your calves. For swelling and inflammation, RICE--rest, ice, compression and elevation--is the universal treatment. Orthotics--shoe inserts and pads--can be prescribed for structural problems. Treatments such as cold therapy, ultrasound, massage and rehabilitation are prescribed for more serious problems.