Episode Summary

Introducing our host, Dr. Matt Minard, owner of Learn 2 Run, who enjoys both the physical and mental benefits of running. More importantly, he is passionate about helping others run safely.

In this episode, Dr. Minard discusses the major causes of calf muscle tightness, highlighting the functions of the calf muscle in movement, how to identify calf tightness, as well as techniques to prevent and treat these causes to avoid recurrence.

First Move Safer, Than Move Often | Omega Sports' Learn to Run Podcast with Dr. Matt Minard

Top Takeaways

  • “If running is a passion of yours, then helping you is a passion of mine.”
    – [Dr. Matt Minard]
  • “Muscles are our movers.”
    – [Dr. Matt Minard]
  • “Jumping up, I want you to use your calf; running forward I want you to use your Gluts.”
    – [Dr. Matt Minard]
  • “You can have efficient mechanics and still get hurt; Most of our injuries are just ‘too much too soon.'”
    – [Dr. Matt Minard]

Episode Highlights

  • [00:01] Meet our host, Dr. Matt Minard.
  • [01:27] This week’s question; “Why are my calf muscles so tight?”
  • [04:30] How to know you have tight calf muscles.
  • [07:07] What causes tight calf muscles?
  • [09:12] Discussing Bounding, its causes, and solutions.
  • [17:10] Push with the Tush (PWT)
  • [20:00] What could tight calf muscles potentially lead to?

Episode Notes

Dr. Matt Minard running

Dr. Minard started running for the physical benefits. Over time, he grew to more deeply understand and appreciate the mental health benefits. For the first 8 years of his career, he treated injured runners. In the last 2 years, he has since pivoted towards dissecting running mechanics. He wants to find ways to help the world run safer and reduce injuries. The goal of the Learn To Run podcast is to share knowledge and educate people on the mechanics of running so they can run safely.

Tight calf muscles

“Why are my calf muscles so tight?”

Muscles are movers of our bodies. They produce movement when they contract (shorten) and relax. The 2 muscles that make up the unit called Calf muscles are the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles. The calf muscles are the meaty bulge located behind the leg just below the back of the knee.

What is the calf muscle and how does it work?

Anatomy of a calf muscle

The calf muscles work at the ankle joint. The feet can be in either of 2 positions; an open chain where the foot is off the ground, or a closed chain where the foot is on the ground. The calf muscles are used when the foot is on the ground, which is a closed chain. The work of the calf muscles is a movement called Plantarflexion. They point the ankle downwards like pushing a gas pedal.

However, to actually feel the calf muscles in action you need to put your foot down (closed chain). Now, with your ankle beneath the knee, feel the muscles behind your leg as you push the ball of your foot against the ground, you will start to notice those muscles get firm and your heel coming up.

Test for tight calf muscles

You may subjectively observe that your calf muscles are tight but an objective method to know if you have calf tightness, is by carrying out a “Wall Test.”

There is a motion called Dorsiflexion where the ankle moves upwards or folds (opposite of Plantarflexion). If there is a tightness in the calf muscles, this movement will be significantly limited, and without this upward movement or folding of the ankles, walking or running will be affected.

Causes of tight calf muscles

Zero Drop Shoes

The muscles insert at the back of the heel in form of a rope-like structure called the Achilles tendon which you will feel if you follow the calf muscle down your leg towards the heel. This tendon is also part of the calf. Now, most shoes have a slightly elevated heel. If you use them and then suddenly move to start using Zero Drop Shoes which have no elevated heel, the adaptation can cause tension in the calf.

Bounding

Usually, to go upwards or jump, you have to push the body downwards against the ground which is the function of the calf. Note that running is a forward movement, hence the problem starts when the body leaves the ground completely(jumping) while running. Such that an upwards movement is occurring at the same time as the forward movement. This combination of jumping with running is called bounding and comes with a higher risk of calf tightness because it means you are using the calf muscles continuously as you jump while running.

To know if you are Bounding, you may just assume that you are, record a video of yourself running to check, or use data from a smartwatch.

From your recording, if you notice your head bobbing up and down or your wrists move above your elbows showing an up-down arm motion, you are bounding. The goal is to move in a horizontal direction called gliding rather than the vertical movement of bounding, and as such, the arms should be moving forward and back.

To check for bounding using a smartwatch, take note of your cadence (which is the number of steps taken per minute). Ideally, you should have around 180 steps but if your watch says you are in the range of 150-160 steps, you may be spending more time in the air, hence you are jumping and running aka bounding. Some watches also measure your vertical displacement. This vertical displacement is expected to be about 5-7cm. If it measures about 10cm or more, then most likely you are spending more time in the air, bounding.

It is necessary to work on strategies to do more gliding once you establish that you are bounding.

Correct bounding

 

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There are 2 main ways to correct bounding: One of them is an activity you can do before running while the other is a thought you can have while running.

The first way to correct bounding is easier to try on the ground than on a treadmill. To carry it out, just before you run, stand up tall, look straight ahead and find a stationary object in the distance. Then note your vision while jumping, followed by walking. Notice how the stable object is while walking vs how unstable it is when jumping. After this, try running and note if the object is stable like when you were walking, or unstable, moving up and down like while you were jumping. Your goal is to adapt your body’s movement to make that object as stable as possible when running.

The other method to correct bounding is the “Push with the Tush” where the goal is to create forward motion by using the Gluteus muscle in the buttocks to push the ground backward based on the principle that an action (pushing backward) will create an opposite reaction (forward movement).

In the past, simply treating calf tightness would give relief for a short period until the patient starts running again and the symptoms return. This was what prompted Dr. Minard to direct his energy toward identifying and treating the cause. Most often, people use the calf muscles to move forward instead of the Gluteus muscle. Ideally, your calf should not be tight if you are gliding which is a forward movement done by the Gluteus. Hence, aside from the therapy to relieve tightness, the strategy adopted in running is also critical to prevent a recurrence.

Effects of calf tightness

Effects of calf tightness range from mild discomfort to more debilitating injuries. Tight calf muscles are very prone to overuse. Most running injuries are because we do too much too soon. We often have overuse or under-recovery injuries. This overuse can result in inflammation like Achilles Tendinitis. Also, keep in mind, the higher you jump while running, the higher the impact of your landing force. This can affect the knees. We recommend finding good running shoes to protect from the force of impact on the knees.

Another effect of not addressing tightness is that the body starts to compensate to help with forward movement by adding some torsion and twisting of the knee which can cause IT Band Friction syndrome or inside knee pain. Additionally, people with tight calf muscles often hinge at the hips rather than the ankles because of the difficulty moving it in Dorsiflexion. Hence, hip hinging can be a compensation for the lack of ankle dorsiflexion.

Resources

Find | Dr. Matt Minard’s LEARN 2 RUN