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Calf Strains and Trail Pains

The season is upon us, and the climate and condition of Northern Vermont couldn't be better for trail running and hiking. We've had amazing days in May which have been dry with clear skies, and the temperature has made it easy to get out without shaking a chill or needing to carry lots of water for the heat. The only downside of running outside this May has been those pesky mayflies, and whatever else it is that bites us up when enjoying the mountain trails.


Trail runner receive massage for calf strain and achilles tendon pain

For trail runners and hikers, the thrill of the trail is unmatched. Dialing in your focus on the next few steps and the next few feet keeps your mind on task and your reflexes sharp. Almost every trail runner or hiker has had the adventure of a common yet frustrating injury: calf strains. At minimum this can be a sharp pain in the calf, but this injury can also extend to the back of the knee, down through the Achilles tendon, around the heel, and even along the base of your foot.


Understanding the kinetic chain and making informed decisions about training, recovery, and footwear can help prevent these issues.


 

Understanding the Kinetic Chain of the Calf


Whether you think you have strong calves or not, they do a lot more than you give them credit for. They carry all your weight, all day long, and they can work non stop no matter what exercise or activity you are doing. They are pretty remarkable, and we don't give them enough love.


The calf muscle plays a pivotal role in the kinetic chain, and when the calf muscle is strained, it disrupts this chain, leading to pain, discomfort, and inefficiency from hiking and trail running, to standing and walking. If you've been in our office, you'll recognize this image from the book Anatomy Trains, by Thomas Myers.


Kinetic chain for calf strain resulting in pain behind the knee, at Achilles tendon, around the heel, and into plantar fascia.
  • Back of the Knee Pain: A strained calf muscle can alter gait mechanics, putting undue stress on the back of the knee.


  • Achilles Tendon Pain: The calf muscles connect to the Achilles tendon. Strain here can lead to tendonitis or Achilles pain.


  • Heel Pain: Calf tightness can pull on connective tissue around the heel, resulting in pain with walking and standing.


  • Plantar Fasciitis: A tight or strained calf muscle can increase tension on the plantar fascia, leading to pain along the base of the foot.



Recognizing these interconnected issues highlights the importance of addressing calf health proactively. Not only does your calf influence the nearby areas we highlighted, but it's not too hard to see how the calf also affects your hamstrings, back, and neck. Another topic for another blog.


 

Training for Pain Prevention with Hiking or Trail Running


Effective training for pain prevention includes flexibility, balance, strengthening, and good technique. For hikers and trail runners, incorporating exercises that specifically target the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and surrounding areas can build resilience, and help enhance muscle endurance and flexibility, reducing the risk of strains. Some of our favorite exercises that are great for your calves, but barely anyone does are:


  1. Calf Smash with Kettlebell (or lacrosse ball)

  2. Bench Dorsiflexion Stretch (to stretch your calf and close your ankle)

  3. Butt Scratchers (for the muscles at your shins)

  4. Seated Soleus Raise (for those deep and powerful calf muscles)

  5. Runners Balance (to be strong and efficient in all the positions you land)

  6. Pogo Hops (for buidling elasticity in your plantar fascia)


If you're not already doing those, then you're missing an easily accessible short cut to calf health and better running.


If you're looking for more to get you back on the trail and ready for new adventures, check out the Trail Run Prep for 3 weeks worth of exercises that will have you reaching your peak and looking for the next one.


 

Recover From Your Run, Or Hike


Recovery after a trail run or hike is just as valuable as the challenging adventure. Recover is crucial for maintaining muscle health and preventing future injuries, and it begins with how you cool down, how you use stretching and mobility to relieve tightness and tension, and how you hydrate and replenish your body with fluids, food, and rest.


Cooling down just kind of happens after you've finished your adventure, but cooling down with light activity helps your body to continue moving nutrients to where they need to go, and moves used up by-products toward the exits and out of your system. This can be a light walk to let your heart rate recover before loading back into the car, or active movement in the parking lot while listening to the rewarding sounds of nature. Those creatures saw what you did out there, and they will celebrate you if you're listening!


Yoga positions like downward dog can help stretch calves and recover from trail runs or hikes.

Stretching along the back of your legs, including your hamstrings, can help your calves from getting tightened up and causing pain anywhere along the kinetic chain we mentioned above, even up to your neck and head! Light walking and yoga can act as stretches that keep muscles engaged without adding extra stress.


You can use mobility tools such as foam rollers, flossing bands, compression garments, or our favorite, lacrosse balls. Use these tools as a self applied soft tissue release. In the clinic, dry needling can help you get quick relief. A skilled hands on physical therapist or massage therapist can be an awesome asset to help you find and address those hard to identify strains.


For those looking for a bit more adventure even in their recvoery, ice baths or cold plunges can reduce inflammation and speed up the healing process. Don't forget to breathe! Another super power for recovery! Sauna is also great for your muscles. Just make sure you are replenishing your fluids before you ramp up your sweat cycle.


All this recovery work sets you up for the biggest priority: sleep. While you sleep, your body is still very active. Instead of using energy to keep you focused and moving, your body uses energy to repair and strengthen itself. A quality night of sleep is earned from challening adventures and compiling good, healthy habits that set you on the fast track to recovery.


 

Is Your Footwear a Friend, or a Foe?


Trail running footwear should be considered for support, cushioning, fit, and flexibility.

Footwear can be the holy grail for some in preventing calf strains and associated pains. The right shoes can provide support, cushioning, and alignment, and the wrong shoes can lead you off trail to an impassable pain. Having the right gear can be make or break for a fun and safe day out, and footwear is a piece of gear you need to inventory and possibly upgrade.


Getting the right footwear can compliment the strengthening strategies and recovery requirements outlined above. Your journey is unique, and only by looking back at your trail map can you see where you've come from. Your shoes can tell you alot about your journey. From wearing patterns to preferences, each step on the trail is recorded in your log, and evaluating your shoes can help make the future days brighter.


Things to consider when reviewing your old trail shoes and looking for new ones.


1. Support: Shoes can have varying levels of support. From elevated arches to stiff soles to raised heels, getting the right amount of support can compliment or conflict with your foots preferred pattern.


2. Cushioning: This can be the sneaky sneaker trick that many buyers find themselves at the short end of the stick after puchasing new trails shoes. While cushioning makes the shoe feel comfortable, too much cushioning can make the foot feel unstable. If your foot doesn't feel stable, then your calf is going to overwork to make the ground contact rock solid.


3. Fit and Flexibility: A shoe that doesn't fit is never a good deal. You can't wear a shoe that doesn't fit well and expect natural foot movement patterns that prevent undue stress on the knee, calf, and ankle.


Trail runners should invest in high-quality, supportive footwear, tailored to their specific needs and the demands of trail running.


We've partnered with our friends at Outdoor Gear Exchange to find out more about what makes a good trail running shoe.



 

For those who cherish their time on the trails and slopes, understanding and preventing calf strains is crucial. Recognizing the impact of the kinetic chain, optimizing recovery strategies, and investing in proper footwear can make a significant difference. By taking these proactive steps, trail runners and hikers can continue to enjoy their adventures without being sidelined by calf pain. A healthy calf is key to a happy trail experience!


If you've got calf pain keeping you from staying on the mountain, then talk with an expert to find out what you can do to turn uphill and keep moving toward your peak. If you're local to the Burlington, Vermont area, then reach out to us. We always look forward to meeting new adventurers as they plan for trips up Mt. Mansfield or Camels Hump. Those are the places we go too! Happy Trails!

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