Leg strength for runners: Part 1. Strong calves

Running is tough on the legs.

That’s why we need to keep them strong to help keep us run happily and stay injury free.

To help you stay injury free when running we have written a three part series on leg strengthening and injury prevention for your calves, hamstrings and glutes.

With all great tasks we have started at the bottom and will work our way up.

Why is calf strength important for runners?

The reasons are endless and we’re going to take you through exactly why having strong, healthy calves can impact your running dramatically.

It’s important to understand the fundamentals of calf strength before developing it into your programme.

We’ll go over some simple tips to avoid running injuries and what to look out for when those niggles start to appear.

But first, let’s understand the actual muscle a little better and what it goes through when we run.

The calf muscle

The two major muscles are the gastrocnemius and soleus in the calf. It’s important to know what the muscle is responsible for, and to understand how it works.
When running the calf muscle transmits the equivalent of 6.5 – 8 times your body weight through it to propel you forward. It’s the powerhouse of running, contributing more towards running speed than glutes or hamstring. While running, your calf is the first major muscle group to make contact with the ground and therefore takes a lot of impact.

Before you start

Before you take your first steps out the door for a run, there some things to consider. By looking at your current situation of the points below, it’ll allow you to understand if you’re body is up to to running while avoiding injury.

  • Strength
  • Fitness level
  • History of previous injury history
  • Adequate sleep and recovery (nutrition)
  • Self perception of running ability, or understanding of running tolerance

With running becoming more and more popular, people underestimate how hard it can be on the body and if they’re physical state is up to it. Taking in the above factors will be the difference if you can run injury free or not.

Getting advice and guidance before you get into running is key, either via a running coach, physio or experienced personal trainer. The advice will be able to highlight any past injuries that may flare up, and you’ll be able to create a plan to avoid injury, leaving you to run happily.

When running the calf goes through 3 stages:

  1. When the foot strikes the ground your calf is required to hold your ankle stable and stiff in position as you travel forward .
  2. During the mid-stance, the whole foot is in contact with the ground and the calf is wound up like a spring building tension.
  3. When the foot pushes off the ground, the calf’s spring-like qualities release, pushing you forward onto the next step.

Strength based exercises

As physios, we believe in prehab. Prehad can be incorporated into a strength based programme and is to make sure those niggles and injuries stay away.

By working up to a goal with prehab exercises, you’re more likely to succeed.

Here are a few important homebased calf strengthening exercises you can do to help you with your running.

Straight leg calf raise

  1. Standing on one leg on step
  2. Standing only on the ball of your foot, letting your heel drop over the edge of the step
  3. Keeping your heel in neutral position, push through forefoot up onto tiptoes taking most of the weight through your big toe.
  4. Hold this position for 2 seconds, then lower down for 3 seconds back to the neutral position.
  5. Repeat this movement up to 20 reps aiming to keep the rhythm of reps equal, when you feel you are struggling to keep the same tempo you know you have hit your fatigue point which is when you should stop.
  6. This exercise helps maintain fore foot posture whilst running.

Heel raise with bent knee

  1. Repeat the same exercise as before but keeping your knee bent.
  2. This exercise helps with strengthening your mid stance position.

Heel raise with a bent toe

  1. Place a rolled up towel on the floor and place foot on towel edge so that your big toe is pointing towards the ceiling while your foot is flat.
  2. Repeat exercise from first exercise (straight leg calf raise) returning to this starting position each time of foot flat while big toe is pointing up towards the ceiling.
  3. This exercise helps with your toe off push, it can be difficult and irritable and I would recommend to use your hands to support body weight to assist with the exercise.

Red Flags

When you’re getting into running or increasing your running amount try to be aware of your body and what it’s telling you. Things to be aware/careful of:

  1. A big jump up in training load.
  2. Adding something new into a training programme which is demanding on the legs.
  3. Pain in calves and feet first thing in the morning.
  4. Pain when you squeeze or pinch your achilles.

With any of these concerns, you can talked through with a professional and can be resolved with careful planning.

A recent study by Herbert-Losier et al (2017) studied over 500 healthy active participants with no injuries and found the following norms for calf raises:

  • 20 – 29 years old: Males 37 reps, Females 30 reps
  • 30 – 39 years old, Males 32 reps, Females 27 reps
  • 40 – 49 years old, Males 28 reps, Females 24 reps
  • 50 – 59 years old, Males 23 reps, Females 21 reps
  • 60 – 69 years old, Males 19 reps, Females 19 reps
  • 70 – 79 years old, Males 14 reps, Females 16 reps
  • 80 – 89 years old, Males 10 reps, Females 13 reps

If you want to know where your calf strength is at, give the test ago. And let us know your result.

Our next article for runners covers hamstring strengthening, hamstring injuries and prevention.

Stay tuned.