The calf muscle, or the calf complex is a series of three muscles that work to provide propulsion when we perform any activity with our legs like running, jumping and walking. As one of the biggest power contributors to our movement, it is important to understand what they are, how they work and how to prevent injury to them to keep ourselves moving around pain free.
The Calf Complex:
The calf complex consists of 3 muscles that reside on the back of the lower limb. These muscles include gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris which all come together towards the foot to form the Achilles tendon, which inserts into the large heel bone in our foot.
Gastrocnemius is found most superficially and towards the top of the calf, under the knee. It is the most easily identified muscle in the calf muscle group with its distinctive two ‘heads’ that forms the bulk of the muscle on the back of the leg. This muscle is a powerful plantarflexor, meaning it works strongly to point your toes, or more functionally, provide power to push off when walking. This muscle works most effectively when the knee is straight.
Soleus is another major contributor to our propulsion but is often forgotten. Lying deep underneath the gastrocnemius and running further down toward the ankle, the soleus also acts as a powerful pushing muscle, providing plantarflexion and propulsion particularly when the knee is bent.
Plantaris completes the calf muscle group, lying between the two heads of gastrocnemius. It is a small muscle, that is a very weak contributor to movement, and it is thought that between 7-20% of people do not have this muscle (and don’t need it!).
Injuries in the calf are common in high loading sports such as running or jumping, as the calf complex requires a significant amount of strength and force to move our bodies. If we exceed that strength either suddenly, during a sports match perhaps, or over time with repeated increased loads, we open ourselves up to potentially injuring one or several of the calf muscles.
Symptoms of a strain may include sudden tightening, cramping, and pain. In more severe cases, tenderness through the affected area, bruising, swelling and a tearing sensation may also occur. Depending on the extent of your injury, it is usually graded from 1 to 3 based on clinical signs and symptoms. A physiotherapist is expertly trained to assess the extent of these injuries and provide rehabilitation to assist return to full function.
How can I prevent calf injury?
Prevention of injuries to the calf complex is multifaceted and involves building strength, power and endurance in the muscles, as well as aspects of balance and stability through the foot and ankle. Stretching, while commonly believed to be useful, plays only a small role in injury prevention, and should be used under the advice of a physiotherapist in conjunction with strengthening. Our physiotherapists are highly trained in not only injury management, but injury prevention and can help you formulate a home or gym-based program to prevent calf injuries in the short and long term across a wide range of sports and leisure activities.
If you or someone you love has previously had a calf injury, is currently recovering from a calf strain or is looking to increase their running volume or general calf strength, don’t hesitate to contact us at the Enhance Physiotherapy Clinic to book in with one of our Physiotherapists for a full assessment.