The wonderfully frustrating thing about running is that it reveals your body’s weaknesses quickly, due to the repetitive stress it places on the body. Any issues with form are compounded and rear their heads as injuries fast! I recently spent a couple of days at home, stuck on the couch (not cool!) following the RICE (rest, ice, compression and recovery) routine for my gastrocnemius, which I strained during a long run prepping for a half marathon.
Your gastrocnemius, or your calf, is a sexy muscle (just check the illustration!) that similar to your biceps, has two heads. Unfortunately despite its shapely form, it is often overlooked in the stretching and strengthening routine of runners in favour of muscles that often give athletes more of a run for their money, namely the hamstrings, quadriceps and IT band. Sure enough, prior to my run, I had rolled out my hips and IT band with my YTU® therapy balls, but had skipped my calves.
The two heads of the gastrocnemius attach on the posterior surface of the femoral condyles (thigh bone) and the posterior surface of the calcaneus (heel bone), via the Achilles tendon. Every time you roll over the balls of your feet in your gait cycle or you flex your knee, you ignite the gastrocnemius.
So why is the gastrocnemius the bane of runners’ lives? This muscle is crucial not only in running, but also walking. For starters, the calf often lacks strength and is tight from sitting or wearing heels or shoes that limit optimum ankle and foot movement. A 20 minute run can average anywhere from 1000 – 2000 steps, which requires the gastrocnemius to work harder and harder, especially as you increase your mileage, stride and speed. Eventually, your gastrocnemius is going to let you know – very clearly – that you are asking too much of it.
At mile 8 of my 10-mile run, I felt a stinging sensation in my calf, like someone had shot a pebble at the back of my leg. Post-run I followed the RICE protocol, but the damage was done. By evening, walking re-created the same stinging sensation in the back of my leg.
What was I to do now? There are different categories of muscle strains (I, II and III), each with a different suggested recovery regimen. Regardless of the severity, you want to make sure the muscle is fully healed before training again to avoid further injury. After that, it’s a good idea to strengthen the injured muscle and make sure you properly warm up and cool down before hitting the pavement or the trails again.
Come back on Friday for a few suggestions on how to strengthen and release your gastrocnemius for pain relief to get you back on your feet!