Whether you are a high performance or recreational athlete, you have all probably experienced cramps in your calves at one point or another. The main cause of calf strain comes from muscle fatigue and can happen while participating in a variety of different sports. It is commonly believed that cramps can be caused by low electrolytes/sodium but so far there has been no evidence to support that claim.
If your muscles start cramping from fatigue it is usually associated with training errors. Sudden increases in exercise intensity before you've given your body time to adjust is one of the main reasons people injure themselves. When the calf muscle is put under too much strain, it goes into protection mode, shortens, and the result is pain and a muscle cramp. Often this pain will go away given a bit of time, but if pushed again too soon you increase the risk of tearing the muscle.
A common mistake for beginners is to try to do too much too soon. Completing the same workout every day without rest, causes your body to fatigue and makes it more prone to injury. If you wish to train everyday, go for it, but keep your workouts varied and add some low intensity exercise for a good balance.
What do I do if my muscles start to cramp?
If your feel your calves seize up, you should ice for the first 24 to 48 hours. Follow the RICE formula: rest, ice, compression and elevation. It's good to note that if the pain persists longer than 48 hours you should consult a doctor or physiotherapist.
How long does it take to recover?
Recovery can be anywhere from two to four weeks which can be a big interruption to a training routine. If the tear is severe, it can take up to eight weeks for a full recovery. For treatment, a combination of physical therapy, massage therapy, and cross-training are recommended. Once you feel like you can move with minimal pain, take it slow and try cycling, swimming, or pool running since they are all low impact exercises which will lower your risk of re-injury.
References from the SIRC Collection:
1. Calf strain. Cycling Weekly. September 8, 2011;:46.
2. KREDA A. Get a Leg Up. Tennis. April 2011;47(3):60.
3. Millar A. Early stretching routine for calf muscle strains. Medicine & Science In Sports. Spring 1976;8(1):39-42.
5. Stephenson C. In the second part of our non-technical injury guide for athletes, we look at muscle and tendon injuries. Sports Injury Bulletin. July 2002;(21):10-12.
6. Wright P. Common injuries: calf strain. Australian Fitness Network. 2003;16(2):48-49.