Consider the following: A recreational runner has an 80% chance of an injury every twelve months of running that will require up to 4 weeks off running.
The average runner is forced to absorb between two and three times bodyweight through the feet on each step.
The average person takes between 1000 and 1200 steps per kilometre (based off Tony Benson’s chart for runners averaging 6-8 minutes/ kilometre).
So if the average person weighs 80kg (180lbs) they are forced to absorb up to 240kg of stress on each step, and then do that for another 1000 or so times per kilometre! In a 5km run your body withstands the equivalent of 1200 tons of force.
It’s no wonder people get hurt when they run.
Running technique is beyond the scope of this article, but injury prevention isn’t. And I’m going to share with you the plan that Tony Benson gave me to help me repair myself from a torn calf to run a 1.34 half marathon at the end of my one and only triathlon a year later – after a decade of no running.
The problem most people have is two fold –
1. Their body simply isn’t ready to absorb that kind of punishment, and
2. Their running technique isn’t good enough for the body to do it’s job naturally, so they rely on the mechanical aids provided in shoes.
The two go together hand in hand in an interesting way. Running shoes are probably the worst kept secret in the fitness industry. Here’s what happens when you put on your expensive cushy shoes –
The body’s sense for what it needs to do when – proprioception – starts at the foot. Without a firm message to the nervous system our body is at a slight loss as to which muscles to use when, how hard to turn them on and even how long to keep them on for.
To get a clear message we are forced to strike the ground harder, to drive the foot onto a firm surface to give us the feedback we require to create sound movement. So to overcome our shoes, which we were originally wearing to prevent us from slamming our feet into the ground, we are forced to slam our feet into the ground. Ironic, no?
To make matters worse this is usually accompanied by heel striking. The foot is designed to be this amazing shock absorber that works on a combination of the plantar fascia and the lower leg. The plantar fascia, in particular, is an enormously strong spring that is capable of assisting in energy return during gait and has been shown to withstand forces well in excess of our calculated forces for running – if we allow it to. But landing on the heel prevents this from happening as we are landing with a non-absorbent object (bone) onto the hard ground! (And this is exactly why learning how to run properly is absolutely vital for both speed and injury prevention. As an example I did a first session with a young man last week and nearly halved his 400m time in a single hour just based off technique alone).
When you consider how many steps we take per kilometre running it is no wonder people get sore calves – up to 5000 eccentric calf raises in a 5km run! When was the last time you did 5000 calf raises in a workout with loads up to triple body weight?
The muscle soreness associated with running is almost entirely associated with the thousands of eccentric contractions that the calf/ foot has to cope with. To help to strengthen the lower limbs to deal with this I give my athletes the following plan before we start any running:
Eccentric calf drops 1 –
Begin by standing facing a wall, feet together. Raise up to your toes on two feet but lower only on one.
The secret here is not to "lower" but to "drop". You need to almost try to force the heel of the working leg into the ground as hard as you can. At the very last fraction of a second you stop the heel, rapidly decelerating it.
Repeat this sequence – up on two, drop down on one. 3 sets of 15 reps each leg.
It is important to note that these should only be done on a flat surface. There is no need to try to increase ROM yet.
Eccentric calf drops 2 –
There is no need to rush into this stage and to be honest I have barely used it. I include it because it was in my original plan, and those who know better than me recommend it.
With increased ROM, be very cautious as adding range to the drop can lead to big increases in soreness or even cause injury.
This exercise is performed the same as the first progression except you will be increasing ROM by standing on a step or an incline.
Weighted calf drops –
I am about to commit RKC heresy, but there is actually ONE good use for a Smith machine beyond a coat rack and this is it. Because of the nature of the exercise, the potential for the lower leg to absorb so much force, it is important that to really strengthen and bullet proof the lower legs for maximum effect we need to add load. Unfortunately standing on one leg with load on your back isn’t very safe but using the Smith Machine here works like a treat.
Return to flat ground for this option – DO NOT use an increased ROM no matter what.
Given the loads that the lower legs cope with during running are up to triple body weight you can use a LOT of weight for this exercise. I have gone up to double body weight for sets of 4-6 reps for 2-3 sets at a time. Unlike the other two options, which can be performed daily, use this only twice per week.
Perform exactly as you would for the other two options – raise on two, down on one catching the heel just before it hits the ground. Reset and repeat and for the desired reps.
Do not go high on the reps with this option as injury is likely to follow.
I often shake my head in wonder when I hear people say things "training claves isn’t very functional". Given the lower leg is responsible for absorbing up to three times body weight during running one can only imagine how much it is forced to absorb during sprinting, jumping, cutting, acceleration…
A simple lower leg strength program can help to alleviate time off training due to injuries, strengthen the start of the chain of movement and give a strong base of support that allows greater athletic movement to take place.
I used to predominantly perform just version one of this exercise in a GTG format – basically just doing it as many times during the day as I remembered. And if I’m being completely honest I only did the Smith Machine version a few times. The main reason was simplicity – to have to go to the gym to get access to the Smith Machine versus just standing against a wall or hanging off a step is much more difficult – time that was better used running, riding or swimming.
Try this simple idea – boosting lower leg strength will increase stride rate, decrease risk of injuries, help to balance out the lower leg and avoid shin splints and stress fractures. It’ll give you some nice looking calves too!