Target Muscle/s: Calf muscles
Sets & Reps: 3 x 12 repetitions (each leg)
Tempo: isometric (hold for up to 30s), concentric (push down for 1s, hold for 2s, return for 3s)
Frequency: Twice a week strength training program (or as advised if part of rehab plan)

Rationale

The calves work incredibly hard during running. The gastrocnemius muscle (higher calf crossing the back of knee) has to deal with forces of around 3 times body weight; the soleus muscle (lower calf) deals with even higher forces (despite its reputation as the less significant of the two calf muscles) at around 8 times body weight. Research shows that the soleus actually produces up to 50% of the total vertical support force. Given these demands, it is not surprising the frequency of calf issues amongst distance runners.

Whether you are rehabbing a calf injury or simply increasing calf strength to reduce risk of future injury, it is useful to bear in mind what the calf muscles do whilst running. When your foot hits the ground in front of you, the calves are actually lengthening and controlling movement during the initial landing stage. This is why calf strengthening often needs to focus on the isometric (static) and eccentric (lengthening) moment, especially during rehab. It is only when the landing foot is underneath the body that the calf starts producing force in the concentric (shortening) phase similar to when we stand up on tip toe. This action is called ‘plantarflexion’, but as you will see in the exercise video below, it is important to ensure that the isometric, eccentric and concentric phases are all targeted.

Method

  • Sit with one leg crossed over the other, with a suitably tense exercise band (see on for details) wrapped around the non weight bearing foot.
  • ISOMETRIC VERSION: push the foot down into plantarflexion and hold this position for up to 30 seconds. The exercise band needs to be tense enough to allow no more than 30 seconds. Once you get stronger and can do over 30 seconds you will need to use a tougher exercise band.
  • ECCENTRIC & CONCENTRIC VERSION: push the foot down into plantarflexion (concentric phase), maintain this pointed position for 2 seconds (isometric phase) then take 3 seconds to slowly allow the foot return to start position (eccentric phase). The exercise band needs to be tense enough to allow no more than 12 repetitions. Once you get stronger and can do over 12 repetitions, you will need to find a tougher exercise band.

Rehabilitation

This exercise can be very useful when rehabbing a lower leg injury, especially if traditional calf raises are as yet too much of a challenge. Your therapist may at first advise you to only perform the isometric version until you see strength gains. They may then progress you to an eccentric only version in which you only tense the band during the returning phase and not the push down. Whatever version of exercise you are given, you always need to take the set to fatigue in order to stimulate strength gains. Bands are therefore coloured to signify level of resistance, normally from yellow (least resistance) to red, green, blue and finally black (highest resistance). You can also increase resistance by stretching the band more before engaging and by twisting it. Once sufficient strength gains have been seen, you may be progressed to the traditional standing or seated heel raise exercises using dumbbells or a medicine ball.

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic in Sussex. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt