CALF CALAMITIES Calf-pain sources range from muscle tightness to muscle tears.
On my way to work today I saw a neighbour with his calves. Later this evening, I will be seeing a patient about a calf of a different sort. The chap this morning was hand feeding a few lovely little dairy calves in the sun, whereas the unfortunate chap this evening will have a less pleasant experience. He won’t be bringing in a calf of the cute mooing variety, rather a painful, ‘I feel like I’ve been shot in the leg’ one.
The calf muscles, for those who didn’t know, are at the back of your lower leg. There are two main muscles, the gastrocnemius (gastroc for short) and soleus. The gastroc muscle is the outer layer, the one that bulges out the back of your leg, while the soleus is deeper and almost creates a flat surface just above your Achilles’ tendon. In simple terms, when you contract these muscles while standing, you go up on your tip-toes, although their main function is to act as a shock absorber when running.
Generally, if you hear someone talking about their calf, it’s to complain that it feels tight, especially after exercise. In many cases the muscles aren’t truly tight, just tired after doing more work than they are used to. It may seem unusual for people who exercise regularly, but when you consider how much of the day is spent sitting, even half an hour of running puts a reasonable load on the legs.
Interestingly, a lot of people find their legs tightest after a day of sightseeing or walking around shops. This is because walking around shops is harder work for the legs than going for a ‘proper’ walk. In crowded places you only manage a handful of steps before having to stop or change direction, whereas a lap of the park involves a constant pendular motion that is very energy efficient and has a slight stretching effect on the calf muscles.
If your calf feels tight, the simplest thing to do is give it a stretch. Face towards your kitchen worktop with your hands resting on the edge for balance. Put the leg to be stretched behind you, with the foot flat on the floor and toes pointing straight ahead, then move your hips forward, keeping your back knee straight and hold for thirty seconds. You’ll feel a nice stretch in the back of the leg, just below your knee.
The unfortunate gentleman I referred to earlier has gone a few steps beyond tightness and managed to tear his calf muscle. An altogether more painful experience where a percentage of the muscle fibres actually snap – in particularly severe cases it’s possible to hear the tear happen!
Calf tears tend to increase in frequency with age. Thus, it’s relatively rare to see a sports person in their 20s with a torn calf, but not surprising from 35 onwards. This increase may possibly be because fast-twitch muscle fibres, of which there are a high percentage in the calf, decline more rapidly with age.
An interesting point to note is that some sports that are more popular among older sportspeople tend to have higher rates of calf injuries as well. Tennis and squash are two games that match this description; in fact a torn calf is sometimes known as ‘tennis leg’. This increased risk is most likely due to the repeated and forceful forward-backward motion of tennis and squash, combined with the age-related degeneration of the fast-twitch fibres.
How then to reduce the risk of such injuries? Firstly by remaining fit for the sport you are playing, but also not pushing to extreme fatigue levels. Maintaining range of movement at the ankle is key, this can be done partly with the stretch described above, and also by doing exercises like deep squats and lunges.
It’s crucial to improve relevant strength in the fast-twitch fibres by doing simple plyometric exercises like bouncing, skipping and hopping as well. It should be noted that these exercises are more useful and relevant than calf raises, which increase muscle bulk but not speed.
If you are unfortunate enough to tear a calf muscle, you should contact your chartered physiotherapist for advice and rehabilitation. You can realistically expect to spend from four to six weeks on the sidelines, possibly standing in the autumn sun watching a farmer as he feeds his baby cows.
> Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.