Injuries to the calf muscle complex (gastrocnemius, soleus, plantaris) are one of the more common injuries associated with hill running, jumping, sprinting activities and stop-start sports. Calf strains/tears usually occur suddenly from a forceful push-off with the foot. This puts maximal tension on the lengthened calf muscles as they are being contracted. Typically, the medial part of the gastrocnemius is disrupted (torn). This injury occurs more commonly in middle-aged male recreational athletes.
The cold and unstretched muscles that recreational athletes often compete with are very likely to rupture when challenged, compared to conditioned and stretched muscles. However, since this injury also occurs in the physically fit, the role of stretching in prevention is not completely understood. This may mean that force versus elasticity is the key formula, and if the force overcomes the elasticity, even in a conditioned athlete, then a rupture or injury can occur.
The athlete with recurrent calf strains is likely to have healed with fibrotic scar tissue (which could have been prevented by deep tissue massage—a specialty of our clinic), which absorbs forces differently, and is more likely to result in rupture when challenged
A calf strain can also be caused by stretching the calf muscles beyond the amount of tension that they can withstand, suddenly putting stress on the calf muscles when they are not ready for the stress, using the calf muscles too much on a certain day (fatigue), or by a direct blow to the calf muscles.
To reduce the chance that you will strain a calf muscle, keep your calf muscles strong so they can absorb the energy of sudden physical stress. Muscle strength allows a player to carry out activities in a controlled manner and decreases the uncoordinated movements which can lead to injury. Exercises that emphasize the eccentric component of muscle action are especially important.
Warming up properly is also essential for preventing injuries. A thorough warm up produces a 2 to 3 degree rise in body temperature that can last for 45 minutes. This heating effect allows muscles and tendons to become more extensible. This makes stretching muscles and tendons easier and more effective. Research has suggested that this decreases the incidence of muscle strains. There is also an increase in blood flow, which means that there is an increase in oxygen to muscle tissue. The increase in temperature causes a rise in enzyme and metabolic activity. This improves the efficiency of muscle contraction. By carrying out functional activities such as sprinting or kicking the ball in the later stages of the warm up, there will be an activation of neural pathways, which speeds up reaction time during an activity/sport.
After a warm-up period, stretch out your calf muscles. Tight muscles are associated with strains. Stretching is therefore practiced to maintain muscle length and prevent injury. The most effective stretches involve full body weight, held for a prolonged period (2-3 minutes).
Learn the proper technique for exercise and sporting activities. This will decrease stress on all your muscles, including your calf muscles.
Know when your body has had enough. Fatigue puts you at risk for a strain.
Cool down properly by stretching after exercise.