Are you into running but suffer from the painful and tight calf? Do you think this may actually stop you in your tracks and prevent from progressing? Or maybe you finished your race with an excruciating pain in your calf?
If your answer is yes to any of those questions, this article is for you.
One of the potential sources of pain in the calf might be the soleus muscle. But it can also be the other calf muscle – the gastrocnemius. What are the symptoms and how to tell these injuries apart? Read on and find out for yourself. Hope you find this article informative and helpful. Enjoy!
Soleus muscle – anatomy
The soleus is a deep, broad, pancake-shaped muscle in your calf. It is one of the three calf muscles (other two being the gastrocnemius and plantaris). It extends from the Achilles tendon on the heel up to upper portions of the tibia and fibula, the bones of the lower leg.
We very rarely think about soleus when we run or walk. But this is a very important muscle and plays a pivotal role in our movement. Sadly, it gets really undervalued in the body. It works non-stop but rarely gets rewarded.
Its function is to flex the foot downward and we use that movement a lot while walking or running. The soleus is often called a “second heart”. It is because it has great ability to pump blood into the lower leg. When is tight, weak or injured it slows the flow of blood to your foot and ankle.
With the ‘sick’, tight, soleus, the oxygen supply to the foot and calf is impaired. In some cases, your calf area may literally lock up, making you unable to flex your foot. Remember hobbling home after a long run?
Obviously, that push-off is crucial to the movement of running. The fast-twitch fibers of the gastrocnemius—or outer calf—are responsible for your explosive sprinting power. However, the soleus is a deeper muscle and contain a lot slow-twich fibres which are designed for and work well in prolonged physical activity. Long distance runners rely on it quite a lot when enduring a mile after mile. They are also first to experience problems with this muscle.
In addition to contributing to propulsion, the soleus also acts as a shock absorber and does a huge job at the end of gait when you step down.
Soleus injuries, tears, strains – are they common?
No, not really….. But read on 🙂
Calf strains are common injuries that we see in Physiotherapy sport clinics. Often times it is a relatively large gastrocnemius muscle that gets injured. The gastrocnemius is more at high risk for strains because it crosses two joints (the knee and ankle) and has a high density of type two fast twitch muscle fibers.
Injuries of the soleus muscle are relatively rare. What you are likely to experience more is tightness, dull aches and pains in this muscle.
Differentiating strains of the gastrocnemius or soleus is important for treatment and prognosis though. Simple clinical testing can help in diagnosis and is aided by knowledge of the anatomy and common clinical presentation.
Gastrocnemius strains typically present with tenderness in the medial part of the calf. In soleus strains the pain is often lateral
Soleus and running
A lot of people overwork their soleus muscles. This happens when running more on the balls (front parts) of the feet. It is a way of protecting your knee joints from excessive loading and pain afterwards.
Some people naturally run on their forefoot and actually there is nothing wrong with that. However, doing it too much can put you at risk for soleus strain. If tight calves are a more recent development, your shoes may be to blame. But how? Well, soft shoes will provoke you into running on your toes which will engage your soleus forcing it to work extra hard. And the more overworked that muscle is, the more likely it is to seize up towards the end of a long run or race.
Tips for healthy soleus and…painless running
Self-massage before and after your long runs can help prime the muscle for running and increase blood flow to prevent soreness.
Do not bother to stretch as part of your warm up or after your training – I do not really recommend it in light of the current scientific evidence. It simply does not work and does nothing good. It only gives you pain relief for a moment. I really like how Paul Ingraham explains that very well in his article.
So what can you do?
Strengthening is a better option!
How to Strengthen Soleus?
To be effective, exercises should be done with weight. Yeah, ok. But why?
You need to add weight because when you run, it’s a single-leg stance, and the force is even up to four times our body weight. So bodyweight exercises alone aren’t going to help you! So, a good option might be to exercise with a set of dumbbells. Otherwise, you will not tire out the soleus, and this will not bring about a desirable effect. So, if you do not want to waist your time, get yourself a set dumbbells or use a different type of weight. Also, try to progress with exercises, do not get stuck with the same weight or do the same number of repetitions forever. Muscles adapt (stop improving) so in order to stimulate them you need to up your game.
Luckily, the soleus is relatively easy to work on.
Here are some exercises you can try:
1. A wall sit variation.
In a seated position, feet flat on the floor. Knees should be at a 90-degree angle and your thighs parallel to the floor. Place a weight evenly across your thigh or quadriceps muscles. Start raising your heels as far as you can go. Pause for 2-3 seconds. Slowly return to the starting position. Do a set with your toes pointed straight out, then pointed inward, and lastly, pointed outward. Do several sets of eight to 10 repetitions. Start with light weight and gradually increase over time as your body permits.
Now, let’s move to a bit more difficult exercises!
2. Calf raises, or standing heel raises!
Using a stepper for this exercise might be a good idea.
Begin with the ball of your foot on a step with your heel hanging over the edge. Slowly lower the heel until you can’t go any further. Then raise up onto your toes, keeping the knee straight. You can perform this exercise with both legs or one leg at a time. This exercise works on both, your soleus the gastrocnemius muscles and increases the range of motion in your ankle (s). Start with one set of 10 to 15 repetitions and add additional sets as your strength increases.
You can also try:
3. Deep bodyweight squat
It is a functional exercise. The soleus performs here its function of supporting and controlling the bend of the ankle and knee.
4. Single-leg deadlifts with dumbbells
5. Balancing on an unstable surface.
The soleus may not be the biggest muscle in the calf, but a little bit of strengthening can pay dividends. It will help you run better (with less pain too 😊 ) and achieve great results!
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I am a Chartered Physiotherapist and Master Myofascial Therapist practicing in Southampton, Hampshire. I was working in the NHS between 2008 and 2021. My speciality lies in treating musculoskeletal conditions and providing community rehabilitation.