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Why Won’t My Calves Stop Barking After I Run?

My feet and knees are fine, but my calves are absolutely killing me

Calf muscles are a sore subject for many people. Some people — myself included — are cursed with teeny-tiny calves that remain minuscule and irrelevant no matter how much targeted stress is funneled in their direction. Other people, including millions of fortunate folks who perform no fitness training whatsoever, are magically and unfairly endowed with calves so big that they could be mistaken for full-grown cows

We can table the discussion of inheritable calf-muscle size for another time, because this sore subject is about literal soreness of the calves, specifically why so many people are forced to endure distracting pain in their calves when they run, or lingering soreness long after their runs have been completed.

Yeah! Every time I drum up the courage to run consistently, my calves always end up super sore! What’s up with that?

My first guess would be that there’s far too much time passing between your attempts to make running your preferred form of cardio, and that you end up suffering from first-workout consequences after each gallant effort.

Let’s ignore for a moment that we’re talking about your calves, and instead think in terms of any other muscle in your body that’s more fun to train in the gym, like your biceps. As you’re training to literally arm yourself with a set of beach-ready guns, you find that there are multiple paths to muscle failure that are frequently separated into two categories: 1) the strength-building approach; and 2) the endurance-building approach. Each of these routines has its merits depending upon what your goals are, and again, both can be similarly executed to absolute failure, signifying that you couldn’t perform another repetition even if you put everything you had into it.

Which, of course, is likely to result in some muscle soreness, possibly that same day, and almost certainly during the subsequent day or two.

I know this already! What does this have to do with my calves?

I’m bringing this to your attention because your calves aren’t special; they’re a collection of muscles just like any other muscle group. This means they can be trained for growth by performing calf-targeted exercises with heavy weights, or they can be trained for endurance by executing higher-repetition sets with lighter weights. Either way, you’re likely to feel very sore afterwards.

In terms of running, on the one hand, it’s like performing sets of infinite bodyweight calf raises. So, if you’re not in the habit of placing any form of strain on your calves, even a mild jog might send excruciating soreness shooting through them. The same goes for whenever you’re angling for a new challenge — like ascending a hill or running barefoot on a beach; when all is said and done, you’re just as likely to be left scrambling for the Icy Hot

That’s all well and good, but even when I’m in good running shape, I still feel pain in my calves.

This might occur because there’s far more to running than controlled movement along a surface. There’s always the possibility that additional soreness will be administered from the impact caused by the pounding of your feet into the pavement (or the treadmill surface). Not only are your muscles being challenged by the strain of supporting and absorbing your body weight one shoe at a time, but also from the strain of smashing into the ground and having to distribute those forces throughout your legs. A primary reason for this can be improper running form, which is why it’s often helpful for runners to subject themselves to a gait analysis to see if the problem can be diagnosed.

Sadly, there’s also the possibility that the discomfort you’re feeling is the result of a full-blown calf strain, which is a legitimate injury to the muscle fibers that make up your calves, and which isn’t to be taken lightly. If your calf pain won’t subside and remains sharp, you should definitely see a doctor. Then go get that aforementioned gait analysis, so that you can prevent such problems from becoming recurring issues.

Do you have any other advice?

I sure do: If your pain isn’t the result of some pernicious injury, you’ve got to adopt the attitude of a vacuum and learn to suck it up. The pathway to becoming a faster, smoother and more durable runner is paved with discomfort, and it’s going to require you to work your way through several rounds of pain in the process. 

What this ultimately means is that learning to cope with some of your post-workout calf pain may require you to spend a few evenings stumbling around like an actual baby calf. You won’t look half as adorable while you’re doing it, but both of you will be running with a normal stride again soon enough.