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For those of us that hike, we are very aware of the beneficial effects of hiking on our well-being, particularly our mental health. It’s our downtime, our zen time, our me time.

Unfortunately any type of repetitive strain injury that forces us off the trails for a while, has a bit of a double-whammy effect – loss of exercise and loss of our “happy place”.

So today we’re talking about ongoing pain in your calf muscles – the type of pain that can ruin a good hike and even put you off the trails until you’ve recovered.

Lucky for us, OTBT Team Member, Sarah, is also a practising Physiotherapist and here she shares her expertise on the ins and outs of calf pain in relation to hiking.  

The best way to avoid repetitive strain injuries is to prevent them in the first place!

Pain versus soreness

Beginner hikers might be surprised at how sore you pull up after your first few hikes. Most times this is because your muscles aren’t used to this new kind of activity. You’re using your muscles in a way they’ve never been used before.

Regular day hikers may end up with sore muscles if you’ve taken on a more difficult trail like an ascent you haven’t done before or a trail that’s much longer. 

Endurance hikers (you crazy kids!) end up with sore muscles typically from the amount of distance and duration hiked (multi-day) or physically challenging terrain.

Let’s be honest, we all suffer from sore muscles every now and then.

As you read on further, please remember it’s your responsibility to decide whether what you’re feeling is within normal limits after a hike, or it’s enough of a concern that you should see your doctor.

Sore calf muscles (ie pulled muscles from new activity) will clear up in a couple of days. 

Calf tightness and discomfort from fatigue (or ‘neuromuscular’ soreness), continues to impact your everyday life outside of hiking. 

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What causes tight, sore calves?

Calf pain and tightness, in the absence of trauma, can be common in hikers, and usually happens in the soleus muscle, in the lower part of your calf.

The calf is responsible for plantarflexing the ankle (pointing your toes) and propelling you forward when you’re walking or running.  Your calves need to be really strong to propel you forward, particularly over uneven terrain and the kinds of distances you cover, even on a day hike.

Calf tightness happens for two reasons:

Overload

  • This is a sudden increase in workload such as a longer or harder hike than usual or inadequate recovery between hikes (lack of sleep, elevated stress). A hike with more hills than usual would also be an example.
  • Different bio-mechanical factors and walking patterns may also contribute to increased load on the calf muscle. Examples of this might be a stiff ankle or weakness of other muscles around the ankle or even higher up in the leg. 

 Inadequate strength

  • Any weakness can present as a tight feeling. 
  • Weakness can happen due to issues such as past injuries, or even a period of inactivity.
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Tips for preventing and managing tightness in the calves

Don’t overestimate your physical limits. Choose trails and conditions that, you know for certain, you can manage.

Monitor your training load. Load represents the amount of physical impact on your body, not about how much your pack weighs (although that should be taken into account too!).

Aim for gradual increases in hike distances and difficulty in terrain, with easier hikes in between (these are considered light rest days).

Remember to take into account the weight of your pack and offset this load against the load of distance/difficulty. For example, hike 10km with a light pack or hike 7km with a heavy pack.

Training for more difficult hikes

Focus on recovery – Recovery includes much shorter hikes, days of complete rest, adequate sleep, good nutrition and good stress management. 

During sleep your body replenishes your energy and heals your muscle micro tears (pulled muscles), as well as your organs and cells. Processes during sleep encourage tissue growth to repair blood vessels and improve your immune system. Sleep should not be taken lightly – it’s the easiest regenerative and healing activity you can do to help to both prepare for and recover from hiking.

Eating healthy food provides your body with nutritional sustenance to sustain your body during any kind of activity. Skipping breakfast will leave you feeling fatigued, protein is needed to maintain your muscle strength and repairs and all the nutrients found in a variety of fruit and veg are essential for your body to operate at its optimum health.  

While hiking is a type of stress management in itself, as a physical activity it can also increase your cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress hormone), particularly during more difficult hikes. Consider all the other stress factors in your life, from work to relationships, lack of sleep to caffeine. Stress is a major contributor to inflammation and diminishing your immune system; a low immune system means longer recovery times after hiking. Reduce the stressors that you can and find what makes you zen and include it in your daily routine.

Change your stride – A simple tip when training for longer hikes and reducing calf muscle strain is to just take shorter steps if you have a long stride.

Get stronger – Strengthening all the different muscles in your legs will not only help you build stamina for more challenging hikes, it will also help reduce repetitive strain injuries on a weak muscle group. Getting Hike Fit covers all the exercises you need from foot and ankle strength, to different muscles throughout the leg. 

Stretch – Between hiking and strength training, your muscles will invariably get tighter because they’re working the same way every time. Muscles, tendons and fascia get stronger, tighter and shorter when used the same way over long periods of time. Stretching helps to balance the “bunching” by actively lengthening and loosening and “unbunching”. Yoga incorporates excellent stretching techniques. Positions like downward dog will help stretch out calf muscles. And a simple yogic forward fold will stretch out one of the tightest muscles of all, your hamstrings (back of your thighs). Releasing all the muscles up the back of your legs with stretches, will help relieve the overall tightness in your calf muscles.

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When to see your Physiotherapist

In some cases soft tissue massage, stretching and foam roller work may relieve symptoms and feel good but won’t necessarily get rid of problematic calf muscles. 

If you are having trouble with managing ongoing calf pain, it’s best to see your Physiotherapist for an appropriate strengthening program.

Importantly, If you have additional symptoms like extreme pain, swelling,  worsening pain or weeping discharge PLEASE SEE YOUR DOCTOR.