Your Calves Are Sore. This Is Probably Why

Your Calves Are Sore. This Is Probably Why

On a basic level, the causes of all muscle soreness and the ways to treat it are the same; leg muscles are made out of the same tissue as arm, chest, and back muscles, and respond to roughly the same stimuli. But on a more granular level, the movement patterns that cause, say, sore calf muscles obviously differ from the ones that aggravate your forearms or shoulders.

It’ll help to learn some rudimentary calf anatomy before exploring the practices that cause it pain.

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Calf Anatomy

Your calves are each made up of two muscles that govern flexion at the ankle.

Gastrocnemius

The gastrocnemius is the bigger of the two calf muscles — it bulges out just below the back of the knee. This is the muscle you most likely associate with the calf, forming ovals on the inner and outer sides of your rear lower leg.

Function: The gastrocnemius, along with the soleus, helps point your toes. It also works with the hamstrings to flex your knee and propel you forward when you walk.

Soleus

The soleus is located deep beneath the gastrocnemius, so it’s not outwardly visible. But it contributes significantly to the overall size of your calves.

Function: The soleus, along with the gastrocnemius, helps point your toes.

calf anatomy | calf muscles | gastrocnemius soleus

Your calf muscles are connected to the Achilles tendon (which attaches to your heel bone), femur, and shin bones. Unsurprisingly, people with tight calves often get Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis (heel pain), says Cary Raffle, a certified personal trainer and orthopedic exercise specialist in New York.

When either the gastrocnemius or soleus is sore, your lower leg can feel sluggish and heavy.

What Causes Sore Calves?

You can get sore calves many ways, by doing everything from dedicated workouts to lighter activity. Chronically tight calves usually arise from repetitive movement patterns, Braun explains, whereas acutely sore calf muscles can be traced back to a single workout or specific event, like dancing all night in Vegas in 4-inch heels.

1. Exercise

If you’re an active person, your source of sore calves is probably delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), caused by intense activity. DOMS tends to peak a day after your workout, lasting up to 48 hours. “Sore calves generally come from overuse, muscle strains, inflammation, or compensations,” Braun says. The activities that may cause sore calves usually involve spending a lot of time on the balls of the feet. Think: running stairs, jump rope, box jumps, jump squats, calf raises, and dancing.

2. Unsupportive shoes

If you haven’t been hitting the gym and feel like you have sore calves for no reason, you may just be wearing old or unsupportive shoes. Raffle also hears complaints after people wear heels for an extended amount of time. “You’re essentially doing an isometric contraction of the calf muscle,” he says. “If you keep that muscle in a shortened position for a length of time, it’s going to react by feeling sore and tired.”

3. Inactivity

Inactivity in general can also lead to fluid buildup in the lower legs, making it harder for your body to pump it back up to the heart. “This can cause a swelling effect, placing pressure on the surrounding anatomy, which can create a stiff or sore effect,” Braun says.

4. Overuse

Finally, a major reason that sore calves are particularly annoying is because you use those muscles every day. “We use our calves every time we walk, which is why it seems hard to get away from the soreness,” Braun says. For relatively small muscles, they have big jobs: “Because your calves help to stabilize you, they do a lot of work when your body is in motion,” he adds. And running only increases how hard the calf muscles have to work. “When you run, you use your calf muscles for propulsion, especially as the pace gets faster,” Braun says. “Sprinting can contribute to sore calves because you are going at a high intensity.”

Stepfanie Romine

About

Stepfanie Romine is a yoga teacher (RYT 500), ACE-certified health coach and fitness nutrition specialist who writes about natural health, plant-based cooking and yoga. A runner and hiker based in Asheville, N.C., her books include The No Meat Athlete Cookbook and Cooking with Healing Mushrooms. Follow her on Twitter.

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