Toe-Running and Sore Calves
Barefoot running and other minimalist movements emphasize a change in form that reduces heel strikes and increases forefoot impacts during the stride. This type of running form may decrease the risk of injury and increase running economy. However, athletes who run too much on their toes are at risk of calf discomfort and injury. Toe-running mimics sprinting technique and is not advantageous for distance running. Runners should aim to land in a neutral strike to avoid sore calves.
Nicholas Romanov, two-time Olympic coach and physical education specialist, explains that toe-running requires the calf muscles to be constantly tensed. Unlike other distance athletes, toe-runners do not land in a neutral position and do not fully utilize the muscles in their upper legs and hips. This result is muscle fatigue and strain, which can prevent toe-runners from maintaining energy and pace for multiple miles. While athletes can perform exercises to strengthen their calf muscles, the toe-first strike will always place additional stress on the lower legs.
Toe-runners can place additional stress on their calf muscles through poor form. The Harvard University Skeletal Biology Lab cautions athletes not to "overstride." Overstriding forces toe-runners to point their feet down in order to land on their toes, which stresses the calf muscles. Toe-runners may further overload their calf muscles by pushing off on their rear foot, rather than lifting the leg with the hips and upper leg muscles. Overloading also occurs because toe-runners must keep their heels lifted off the ground and cannot relax their calves.
According to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, toe-runners and other athletes are susceptible to overuse injuries because of the unavoidable impact associated with running. Micro-tears in calf muscle tissue cause tenderness and stiffness, which can carry over into successive training sessions. Runners must schedule adequate rest to prevent strains or full tears. General soreness from overuse is especially common in runners who are transitioning to a toe-strike. The Harvard University Skeletal Biology Lab recommends that toe-runners new to the form increase their distance no more than 10 percent per week to prevent these injuries.
Toe-running is associated with minimalist running shoes. The shorter heel height permits the athlete to land on his toes without the heel striking first and without pointing his foot to initiate the toe-strike. Toe-runners who experience calf soreness may want to use shoes that are less minimal when transitioning to the form or when adopting a barefoot approach. Neutral shoes allow a runner to practice the form and strengthen their calves without overuse or overload. Once a toe-runner has perfected his form and strengthened the muscles in his lower legs, he can graduate to minimal shoes or barefoot running with less chance of soreness.
Jennifer Boyden has been writing professionally since 2007. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing from Emerson College and graduate degrees in mental health counseling and criminal justice from Suffolk University. Boyden also has experience playing and coaching collegiate softball and is a CrossFit Level 1 trainer.