Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Calve Muscle Cramping

This was posted to the list on Monday Jul 13, 2009 12:38 pm

Re: [TCSD] Calve Muscle Cramping


I can only share my own experience, but for me the answer was simple: Stop (mis)using the calf muscles, and take better care of them!

This is yet another one of my long posts: The punch line is in the last five paragraphs. I won't hate your forever if you skip ahead. Really.

It's been almost a year since triathlon encouraged me to return to running after 14 years off, and I'm still very much on the learning curve. Back in the day, I was a consistent 7:30 miler at the 10K distance. When I stopped getting faster, I tried to go longer, and encountered joint pain problems that eventually convinced me to pursue other means of cardio exercise.

I should mention that I have flat feet and am bow-legged. Running has never been easy for me, though I always enjoyed it whenever I could do it free from pain and injury.

Triathlon has encouraged me to return to running, initially at the Sprint (5K) distance. But it's like the legs I have today are bad replacements that just don't work the same. My first months of running soon hit a wall at 10 minutes per mile (over just a 2 mile run). However, having been a decent runner back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and using the full resources of the Internet combined with observing other runners and listening to coaches and other professionals, I've started to piece together a new running style for myself.

As I explored changes to my stride, I've stumbled across some basic "rules" I use to guide my overall efforts, which I've listed along with how I applied them to the specific issue of my own calves (and running in general).

* Rule #1: If it hurts, STOP DOING IT! (Find a better way.)

My calves hurt like crazy when I (re)started running. But you can't stop using your calves while running, can you?

I first heard about the idea of reducing calf muscle use from a question at the end of Joe Friel's talk at a TCSD club meeting earlier this year, where he was asked about the mid-sole positioning of bicycle shoe cleats. When I moved my own clips back as far as they would go (behind the ball of my foot), I immediately experienced much less foot sole (plantar fascia) discomfort (I have VERY flat feet), and my calves completely stopped bothering me during bike climbs/sprints, all with no reduction in peak or average speed. I figured if I don't need to use my toes/forefoot to bike, could I use them less while running?

I changed the emphasis of my running stride to push through the heel and roll off the ball of the foot. I reserve "full-on toe-push" calf use only for sprinting/kicking (and I never sprint/kick). Oddly enough, this change did not make me any slower, which to me means I had been (ab)using my calves for NO speed gain! I still use my calves when running, but I just use them less.

* Rule #2: Build sport muscles using non-sport exercise.

There are many great ways to strengthen the calves while also improving endurance. Jump-rope is a popular favorite, as are other jumping-related exercises (e.g., shooting hoops). Just be sure to do them in long gentle sets that represent the duration of a decent short run (something that applies to most exercises intended to improve muscle performance for endurance sports).

* Rule #3: Short & Fast is better than Long & Slow. (Uh, except for swimming.)

When I had trouble sprinting and climbing seated on my bike, everyone told me to drop a gear and increase my cadence. Turns out this was good advice for all parts of my biking, including on the flats and even downhill (recovery). Could something similar apply to running?

Back in the day, I had a long stride with a hard heel strike. My leg muscles still love that stride, though my joints can't tolerate it. Shortening my stride and increasing my "turnover" (running cadence) made each running step FAR less stressful to my joints. What surprised me most is that it also made me nearly 10% FASTER over just the first week of trying it! I'm now doing 8 minute miles over my two mile training run. It also eliminated the mild shin splints I would occasionally encounter.

My current goal is to have my flat running cadence match my flat cycling cadence, which for me is 90 RPM. This is where my Garmin Forerunner 305 really helps: Just as I have a bike pod to monitor my cycling cadence, I also got a shoe pod to monitor my running cadence.

Another change due to Short/Fast strides for me is that I'm no longer a hard heel striker. Though I wasn't focusing on changing my footfall in any way (I don't understand the online debates on this issue), shortening my stride has made me more of a "mid-sole" striker. I suspect this is the source of the reduced stress on my joints (until recently, my knees hurt after most runs).

Other Short/Fast benefits for me: My maximum sustained heart rate has taken a big step up: My average pulse rate over an "all out" 2 mile run used to be 160-165 BPM. In my first "short stride" run, and in every run since, it is now 170-175 BPM. I expect this number to slowly go back down as my conditioning improves (or not, if my speed also continues to improve). I mentioned the reduced shin splints, which for me came with longer downhill runs: I now run downhill faster than I did before, and I suspect this is where most of my initial speed improvement has come from.

Overall, I suspect my Short/Fast stride could be slightly less efficient that my old stride, but for me it is far more EFFECTIVE, in that I can run faster, harder and longer, uphill, downhill and on the flats, all with less stress and pain, though I certainly am more tired at the end of each run than I used to be.

* Rule #4: Active Recovery.

No, I'm not talking only about what you do immediately after running, though cool-downs, mild stretching and rehydration at that time is certainly a Good Thing. (Stretching BEFORE running, however, can be a Bad Thing: "Never Stretch a Cold Muscle." It has been shown to REDUCE performance!)

For me, Active Recovery is a set of activities done between workouts that help the body recover from and prepare for hard exertion, and also help treat mild pain and heal minor injuries. Yes, this certainly includes proper hydration, calorie replacement, nutrition and focused exercise. However, for me, my most important active recovery tools are my Foam Roller (4" diameter, 4' long), and a Rolling Pin. I use them at home both before and after races and major workouts.

For running, I roll the IT band (side of the thigh), quadriceps (front of the thigh), hamstring (back of the thigh), calf muscles (and Achilles tendon), and the sole of each foot (a golf ball also helps here). A thorough job can easily take nearly an hour, which gives me a reason to watch TV. (Yeah, like I needed one.)

Enough about me: Let's return to your specific problem, calf pain for the first 3/4 mile of the run. This leads me to two fundamental questions. The first question is: "Why did your calves start hurting?". The answer here seems obvious to me: You clearly are over-using your calves during this period. However, since the appearance of this pain puzzles you, I'm guessing you have no discomfort during the start of your regular training runs.

Which leads to a deeper question: Could your calves have been killed BEFORE you started the run leg? Could your calves be exhausted when you get off the bike? I strongly suspect that is what's happening here. Try reducing calf use during the bike leg, especially at the end of the ride, where the focus should be on calf recovery. Replenish fluids during the ride. But what if you don't use your calves that much during the bike ride?

We can go further back: Could your calves have been killed by the swim leg? Factors in this area include: Do you ever get calf cramps or pain while swimming? Do you forget to kick to warm up your legs before getting out of the water? Do you sprint on your toes from the water exit to transition? Remedy: Avoid punishing your calves before they are warmed up! If you do kill them, focus on recovery before reuse!

The second fundamental question is more interesting to me: "Why did you calves STOP hurting after the first 3/4 mile?" Why didn't they hurt for the entire run? My guess is that the pain "encouraged" you to use your calves less, which in turn allowed them to recover and permit the pain to fade. Could you have prevented the pain by using your calves less right from the start? Clearly, reducing calf use is a factor. Improving calf conditioning is another. Warming up the calves before hard use, and recovering between hard uses, may the the most important factors.

Again, these are just my own observations based on my own evolving running style, and what works for me may not work for you (YMMV). Much of the above also makes sense to me from the sports physiology and physical therapy perspectives, and listening to professionals in those fields has been, and continues to be, an enormous help (about a bazillion of them are TCSD members).

It's time for me to go run...



PS: Did I mention that TCSD ROCKS!

Anita Talevski wrote:
> Dear Chris,
> I have a similar problem. Solution: electrolytes, lots of salt, water
> and stretching. It's a balancing act.
> This is only my opinion.
> Best,
> Anita
> --- On *Sun, 7/12/09, Chris Knopp /<christopherknopp@...>/* wrote:
> From: Chris Knopp <christopherknopp@...>
> Subject: [TCSD] Calve Muscle Cramping
> To:
> Date: Sunday, July 12, 2009, 10:26 PM
> I wanted to ask the group if anybody has any tips on preventing muscle
> tightening and cramping in calve muscles at the beginning of the run
> portion during a race. My calve muscles really cramp up for about the
> first 3/4 miles. Do I just need to do more brick workouts to
> condition my legs?? Any advice would be appreciated!
> Thanks,
> Chris


  1. I just found your site, and started to read through some of the old posts. This is an interesting read, because I too have experienced this. I'm new to triathlon having only run a few races. By the way, time for a quick and very sincere THANK YOU to TCSD! The support, help, motivation I have received from the club is unbelievable. I have completed a few races this season, and in both (Spring Sprint and Encinitas) very quickly after my transition to the run my right calf would start to cramp rather badly. Both times I thought it would kill my race, but I backed off a bit and when the cramping went away I was able to pick up the pace and complete the run strong. It is interesting to read the post because I experience almost the same cramping that goes away around a mile into the run. My initial thought is that I am pushing the calf a bit hard on the bike, but based on reading your post, I think I need to go back and evaluate from the swim forward. There have certainly been times my calf has cramped up in the swim. It has happened in the Thursday open water swim class, and also in the Encinitas race.

  2. I'd be willing to bet you are right-handed. Right? This also means your right leg is dominant, and thus works harder during the bike.

    Data I've seen from experimental power meters that measure each leg separately indicate a surprising degree of difference in the power levels obtained from each leg even in experienced and elite riders. The better the rider, the smaller the difference, but it is still there. This is why single-leg drills are an important part of bike form development.

    But there is another factor in leg dominance: The smaller muscles seem to have the greatest differences. So if the quads are well-matched, the glutes could work asymmetrically, leading some riders to change posture and/or get low back pain.

    If the quads and glutes are both well-matched, then the poor calves may provide the difference.

    But why do we use the calves at all while cycling? If you look at the full pedal rotation, there is no part of it where the calves can make a significant difference in the power applied. Joe Friel has blogged on this issue (as have others), and he has experimented with moving the shoe cleat to the mid-foot with significant success.

    I moved my own cleats back as far as they would go (which is quite far in SPD shoes) and noticed a significant reduction in calf use with no loss in speed or endurance.

    Since you can't run very well without calves, why use them at all during the swim and bike? Reducing or eliminating all pre-run calf use can only help run performance.

    When you have at least a month before a race, try moving your cleats back and give your bike form time to recover. I think you'll see early-run calf cramps go away.