Running is multiple single legged stances repetitively being performed step after step. As kids, we are not taught to walk or run. We just move and it happens. Many muscles are involved in this intriguing movement sequence. It is often surprising to see the areas of decreased strength found in many runners’ legs. This is often due to the fact that many runners rely on global versus localized strength when running. For continued healthy running, incorporating some simple exercises to more specifically target important muscles during running gait training/retraining can make all the difference with being able to run in a healthy and competitive way. Sufficient strength of the Gastrocnemius muscle, otherwise known as the calf, is one of the many important areas necessary to run safely and with improved performance. It is a two-headed muscle that runs from behind the knee to the heel. Function of the Gastrocnemius is to both plantarflex (point down) the foot and flex the knee. Therefore, it is very important with push off during running. There is a basic exercise that improves the strength of this muscle. Unilateral heel raise (described below) is an exercise to increase your Gastrocnemius muscle (calf) strength. Although a simple exercise, it is important that it is performed with the correct technique and throughout the full available range of motion for sufficient strength to result from performing it. It is also important to perform throughout the available range of motion to avoid potential loss of flexibility of the muscle which could ultimately lead to other possible injuries familiar to runners, such as Achilles tendinitis (or tendinopathy) and Plantar fasciitis (or fasciopathy). Strengthening the muscle concentrically (lifting the heel up) and eccentrically (lowering down) ensures you are strengthening all aspects of the muscle.
Performing exercises (especially for running) in a very specific and controlled way is essential to be able to run step after step with less impact on the musculoskeletal system. Running significantly increases ground reaction forces applied to the body. Improved muscle strength helps absorb and disperse some of these forces that will, in turn, decrease strain to bones, joints and ligaments.
Single legged calf raises:
o Start with feet hip width apart and try lifting your heels; once able to do this with both feet down, progress to standing and performing on one leg.
o Lift your heels directly up while ensuring all parts of the ball of your foot are staying in contact with the ground
§ Ensure your weight is equally distributed under the ball of the foot of the big toe and 5th toe
o Slowly lift your heels as high as you can with control both on the way up and the way down
o Goal: eventually working on building up to 3 x 30 reps for the endurance of the muscle to increase for the running
o Never perform an exercise that provokes pain during or after the exercise
o If tolerated, and you have no current injuries requiring extra support to your feet, try to perform barefoot to further strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles
o Make sure your are not moving to the outer borders of your feet
o Consider engaging your core and gluteus muscles to provide proximal stability to your trunk and upper part of your legs
o Depending on your specific alignment and any potential issues of your musculoskeletal system, variations of this exercise can be performed to target the most specific part of your muscle requiring more strengthening (i.e. turning the foot inward or outward).
Another option: another important muscle in the calf is the Soleus muscle. This muscle plantarflexes the foot. To strengthen this muscle, you perform a heel raise in the same way as identified for the Gastrocnemius, but, you perform with the knee slightly flexed.