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Building Strong Calves: The Key to Boosting Running Performance

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

UNPOPULAR OPINION: Calf raises ARE DUMB.

here's why.

"18...19...20...go ahead and stop."


My Boston-bound running-patient was hammering out single leg calf raises like they were going out of style.


I noticed maybe she was a little slower, a touch weaker on her left compared to right. But overall, she met the 5/5 (top score) Manual Muscle Testing score for 20 single leg calf raises.


Then WHY was she still having plantar fasciitis and Achilles issues?


The "typical" PT answer would have been: "oh, her calves are weak!"

Ooooh, are they, now?

*Refer back to the patient literally getting 100% on her muscle test*.


THE TRUTH: *maybe* they are...BUT

What we know for sure: her calf muscles are NOT weak in a single leg calf raise position.


Then where's the weakness and what is she supposed to do??


According to the plethora of information on the wild, wild internet, you as a runner, are told if:

  • you do 100000x single leg calf raises

  • everyday,

  • you will have bullet proof calves

  • and you'll never get injured ever again.

I wish that was the case. That it was that simple.

But it's not.


But the good news: like my Boston-bound runner above...

YOU'RE NOT ALONE.


If you've been struggling with:

  • calf tightness

  • achilles issues

  • calf cramping etc

OR you're looking for concrete, actionable ways to boost your running performance so you can race stronger and finish faster...

then building strong calves are invaluable for you!


But the "trick" becomes: how do you strengthen them LIKE A RUNNER?


If you're willing to give some unorthordox exercises a try, let's dive in!


BUILD STRONG CALVES:

Circuit:

3 sets each // Body weight to light/medium weights


Runner's lunge split stance with heel lifts over broom stick

  • Reps 10-15 ea side

Forwards/Backwards Gallop

  • Forwards: 5 yds // Backwards: 5 yds

"Runner's Calf Raise" (FFE on EOS with B UE OH holding weight calf raise)

  • 10-15 ea side X light weight in both hands

  • (translation: forefoot elevated on edge of step with both arms overhead holding weigh-calf raise)

HOW STRONG CALVES BOOST RUNNING PERFORMANCE

Runner's lunge split stance with heel lifts over broom stick

  • It's OK if you're shakey here!

  • PRO TIP: place the broom underneath your arch. It'll be more comfortable AND it will help cue you to perform the small, heel raise correctly.

  • The trick here: keep your body weight forward onto your front leg. As you get tired, you'll want to redistribute the weight onto your back leg, making the exercise easier overall and placing less work on your calf muscles. (defeats the point, right?)

  • This exercise places you in a position that looks like running. It then challenges the calf muscles of the front leg AND foot to control and travel through the same motions you use for every stride. This is strengthening your calf muscles like a runner

Forward's/Backwards Gallop

  • I already know it: you're gonna take one look at this one and say "oh heck no! that's dumb...". Suit yourself.

  • But when I say backwards galloping completely changed the game for my calves, shins, and hamstring...

  • THE MAGIC of this exercise: can you see how this looks like running? The important part comes from HOW your calves (and front shin muscles) have to work to propel and absorb load, create power and movement, in BOTH the forwards and backwards motions.

  • This exercise may feel clunky, hard, stupid etc. (it gasses me every time. it's just how it is.) But with time and practice, you WILL get better!

  • WARNING: DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU HAVE SHIN SPLINTS. it will hurt.

Runner's Calf Raise

  • THIS is how I increase load for calf raises.

  • Watch that front leg: keep 90% of your body weight forward! and the weight overhead: let it be light and keep reaching for the ceiling!

  • The front bent knee: removes the gastroc from doing the majority of the work (like in a traditional calf raise) and encourages the soleus (a very important and forgotten calf muscles) to join in.

  • THE COOL PART: this not only looks like running, but it challenges your single leg balance, encourages your forefoot to get involved and stronger, asks your core to hold you upright and works on endurance for long miles, and then obviously also strengthens calf muscles. When you Dare to Train Differently, you work smarter, not harder.

WRAPPING UP

Are calf raises entirely useless?

Absolutely NOT.


They have their place and purpose.

In fact, they're a great place to start because they serve as a BUILDING BLOCK for other exercises

...just like the ones above!


However, if you're relying solely on single leg calf raises to save you from:

  • shin splints

  • Achilles tendonitis

  • and/or propel you to a faster time over the finish line...

...I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.


In order to genuinely boost your running performance, you have to get tactical with your strength training.

(Obviously, you've got to follow your running plan, do your speed work, eat, sleep, recover etc...)


But it's strength training like a runner:

  • getting deliberate

  • consistent

  • and committed to it

  • that leads to the how and why behind stronger, faster runs and finishes.

As for my Boston-bound runner at the start of this, I'm guessing you already know I didn't prescribe her calf raises. ;)

Instead, we focused on a lot of foot, ankle, and glute exercises

...that looked awfully similar to these.


And she absolutely crushed them :)


If you're looking for more ways to strength train like a runner, I've got a FREE STRENGTH GUIDE for RUNNERS right HERE for you!


Until next time...

Dare to Train Differently,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT //@dr.whitt.fit


P.S. No really, it's FREE!


It's also a sneak preview of RACE READY: my 16 week strength program for busy runners designed by a busy runner and PT.

  • It aligns with YOUR marathon training plan so you can unlock your best, strongest (and maybe even fastest race yet ;) ) without the lingering anxiety of a new or old injury popping up and stealing your hard earned race away.

  • Grab that Free guide above to join my email list so you don't miss a thing!

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2 comentarios


Nigel
Nigel
30 oct 2023

Great article, very well laid out and explained clearly. You’ve given some good advice on strengthening my lower legs, an area that can be neglected (admittedly) because my job exercises my quads to my shoulders. Thanks.

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Marie Whitt
Marie Whitt
30 oct 2023
Contestando a

I'm so glad it's been helpful 😊 Honestly, half the battle is knowing your strengths vs your weak links, especially when your job is physically demanding in one area! (This Definitely applies to physical therapy too haha. Sometimes you have to train for life, and not just running)

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