I know a thing or two about calf strains. Over a 2 year period stretching from September 2016 to November 2018, I experienced no less than 7 separate calf strains. It started in my right calf, and then as soon as my right calf healed, my left calf caved in.
This pattern would repeat itself over and over again, completely destroying my training schedule and with it, my motivation to exercise. It’s almost like my body was determined to bury my running career before it even began.
Despite this constant string of setbacks, I’ve learnt how to overcome this unbearably frustrating injury. In this post, I reveal what has worked for me.
What does a calf strain feel like?
This depends on the severity of the strain, but this is how I would describe a mild calf strain. Imagine if someone was able to tie all of the muscle fibers in your calf into a massive knot. Once this knot has formed, every time you apply excess pressure to the injured calf, the knot tightens and wraps up more of the surrounding muscle fibers. The only way to untie this knot is adequate rest. Physiotherapy can help (and I highly recommend that you find a physiotherapist) but by far the most important thing is to avoid doing further damage.
Word to the wise
When you feel even the slightest hint of a calf strain, stop running immediately. It doesn’t matter if you only have 50 meters to reach your distance goal for the day. The worst thing you can do is run on an injured calf. I’ve been there and I know how much it sucks, but continuing your run when you know something is wrong is unforgivably stupid. Harsh but true. I’m pretty sure every doctor would agree.
How long does it take to recover from a calf strain?
This depends on how bad the calf strain is. There are ultimately three different grades of calf strain. I’ve pulled these definitions from John Miller at physioworks.com.au
Grade 1 Calf Strain Recovery Time – Approximately 1 to 3 Weeks:
Grade one calf muscle tears are a result of mild overstretching resulting in some small micro tears in the calf muscle fibres. Symptoms are normally quite disabling for the first two to three days. In most cases, your recovery will take approximately one to two weeks if you do all the right things. Your physiotherapist can help you to fast-track your recovery.
Grade 2 Calf Strain Recovery Time – Approximately 4 to 8 Weeks:
Grade two calf muscle tears result in partial tearing of your muscle fibres. Full recovery normally takes several weeks with good rehabilitation. Return to high load or high-speed sport should be guided by your physiotherapist to prevent an unnecessary retear, which is reasonably common in moderate calf tears.
Grade 3 Calf Strain Recovery Time – Several Months:
A grade three calf tear is the most severe calf strain with a complete tearing or rupture of your calf muscle fibres. Full recovery can take several months and may not be 100% in some instances. An Orthopaedic Surgeon opinion is recommended. Surgery may be required. Professional assessment and treatment guidance specific to all grade 3 calf tears is highly recommended.
If you’re anything like me, you will probably find these timelines disheartening. Sadly it doesn’t matter how much will power you have. You simply have to take your medicine, and avoid running for the recommended time period.
During this frustrating period on the bench, cycling and rowing are your best bet if you want to maintain some form of cardiovascular fitness.
What’s the worst thing that can happen if you carry on running with a calf strain?
Here’s something that no one else talks about. If you don’t follow a guided recovery program and continue to train on your injured calf, you can transform your injury from mild to severe, very quickly. In other words:
- If you have a grade 1 calf strain, you can push it into grade 2 status.
- If you have a grade 2 strain, you can push it into grade 3 status.
- If you have a grade 3 strain you won’t be able to run, but if you do, you could do lifelong damage.
Ok, so how do you actually get this thing sorted?
1) Adjust Your Training Schedule – Once you’ve given your calves enough time to recover, you need to ease back into your training. In my case, I’ve created a basic training rule that I follow religiously. Until your calves are super strong, you aren’t allowed to train 2 days in a row. Once every second day is the absolute most that you can allow for. In fact, when you start your come back, one very slow run every 3-4 days is a good guideline for the first 2 weeks.
2)Significantly reduce your training speed for 4-6 weeks – The speed at which you run affects how much force your calves have to endure over the course of a training session. You must take this message to heart. If you go balls to the wall during your first 4 weeks back, you could very easily re-injure your calf. By significantly reducing your speed, you will decrease the total force applied to your calves and decrease the risk of injury.
3) Set a reasonable total distance goal for a month – In my case, that distance goal was 40k’s. Because you have to run slowly during the recovery period, you won’t feel like you are working hard enough. By setting a distance goal, you can keep your motivation high, knowing that each kilometer you cover is bringing you closer to your distance goal while slowly rebuilding your leg strength.
4) 30 or more Calf Raises every single day for the rest of you life – In his book, “Mini Habits for Weight Loss”, Stephen Guise reveals how the decision to do 1 push up every single day totally transformed his fitness regime. He went from being a weak, sloth like creature with serious motivation struggles to a strong, athletic individual that smashes the gym 5 times a week.
Your job as a calf strain sufferer is to undergo a similar transformation in your calf training consistency. Now before you freak out about this requirement, keep this thought in mind.
It takes about 3 minutes to do 30 calf raises, and it isn’t very taxing physically or psychologically. It’s just a mini habit that you need to form, in order to develop a base level of calf strength that doesn’t diminish over time.
The worst thing about experiencing a calf strain is that the moment you do, you dramatically increase the chance of having another calf strain in future.
However, if you respond to this challenge with a long term perspective and you are willing to follow a recovery guideline that includes daily calf raises as a staple requirement, there is every reason to believe your calf strength will go above and beyond what it was before the injury.
In other words, if you take this process seriously and build ridiculously strong calves over time, you can basically forget about future calf strains as you chase down that new PB.