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6 Ways to Deal with Calf Strain as a Runner + I Tried Dry Needling

The name of this post should really be, “I got dry needled and lived to tell about it.”

Dry needling calf muscles

One of our teachers, Kari, is a physical therapist and has been doing quite a bit of dry needling at the clinic she manages lately. She has been encouraging me to try it for months now so when she offered to work on my calf after the half marathon, I finally agreed. More on that in a moment. First, let’s talk about calf muscles and my background with calf strain.

If there is one thing that’s going to bother me after long runs or races, it’s my calf muscles and especially my left one. The spot around where my achilles and calf attach tends to get really sore. If you look at this diagram of the anatomy of the calf, it’s mostly around my soleus. I struggled with achilles tendonitis back when I was training for my very first marathon years ago. My achilles tendonitis was mostly due to tightness in my feet and lack of flexion in my big toes but since I’ve increased that greatly through yoga, it’s improved a lot.

Even still, I have to be super careful with my calf muscles not to strain them. When I hosted my online half marathon training group last fall, I was surprised by how many others experienced similar pain. I thought it would be helpful to share some ways that I have learned to deal calf strain and also prevent it.

  1. Slowly increase mileage. When I’m in training mode, I find that I can stay ahead of calf strain if I slowly increase my mileage and don’t make any sudden jumps in long run distance.
  2. Wear compression socks or tape up the calf/achilles with KT tape. This has been a huge help for me and you’ll never find me tackling a long run without compression or taping.
  3. Take two days off after long runs. This is different for everyone but I have learned that I need two full days off from running after long runs to recover enough to make a big impact on injury prevention. Even when I wake up feeling totally fine the next day, I force myself to take time off.
  4. Stretch it out. As I mentioned above, a regular yoga practice has been a huge benefit for my body in preventing running injuries of all types, including calf strain/achilles tendonitis. Isn’t it the craziest thing that tightness in your big toes can result in achilles tendonitis and calf strain? Our bodies are so interconnected. Check out this video for a tutorial on how to roll out your feet.
  5. Warm up properly, especially when doing speed work or racing short distances. All out effort without a proper warm up is a recipe for disaster when it comes to my calf muscles. I always make sure to do dynamic stretching and run an easy mile or so before starting any sprint/speed work or before short races like 5Ks where I’ll be giving all out effort from the start. Last August I raced a 5K and arrived too late to get my full warm up in. I paid for that mistake for two weeks after when I couldn’t run due to calf strain.
  6. STOP at the first sign of pain. My calf pain is very, very specific so there is no denying it when I start to feel it. I’ve learned that continuing to run on it only exacerbates the issue and that if I stop, rest it and treat it that I can reduce the amount of time that I’m down with it. For me this usually means 7-10 days off of running along with a lot of work on my own and with professionals to treat it while it’s acute. I do things like calf raises to move it through a range of movement, muscle flossing with resistance bands, ice, massage, active release therapy, scraping, etc. Dr. Bradberry and the team at Greenapple has been a huge help with this.

It really comes down to not doing too much too fast. It’s sounds so simple and it is. The problem is that sometimes we forget all of the lessons we’ve learned in the past about it and think we’re invincible super runners. Then reality comes in like a wrecking ball. 🙂

6 Ways to Deal with Calf Strain and my first dry needling experience

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago…I was shocked by how good I felt after my unplanned half marathon. I had minimal soreness. I took my two full days off of running after the half and then did a short and easy three-mile treadmill run the following Tuesday. While there was no calf pain, I could definitely “feel it.” I ran again on Thursday with Virginia and I could still feel it. It never crossed the threshold into pain but I knew I needed to do something before it did.

Dry needling calf muscles

Enter the dry needling with Kari. She promised that it would help loosen up my calf and that it would only take 15 minutes. Kari showed up at the studio later that afternoon with the needles and when she instructed me to lay down in the middle of our office floor I was like, “okay…this is happening.” My marketing coordinator documented the experience with photos and asked me wide-eyed, “have you seen the size of the needles she’s using?” I was just trying to stay focused on my yoga breathing and could not watch Kari while she was needling.

Dry needling calf muscles

Let’s talk about dry needling and what it does. According to the American Physical Therapy Association…

“Dry needling is a skilled intervention that uses a thin filiform needle to penetrate the skin and stimulate underlying myofascial trigger points, muscular, and connective tissues for the management of neuromusculoskeletal pain and movement impairments. [It] is a technique used to treat dysfunctions in skeletal muscle, fascia, and connective tissue, and to diminish persistent peripheral nociceptive input, and reduce or restore impairments in body structure and function, leading to improved activity and participation.”

Dry needling calf muscles

Kari worked to find trigger points in my calf muscles and then inserted needles into them This works to create relaxation through disruption as well as in creating tiny injuries that promote a healing response to restore normal function. She needled my soleus, gastrocnemius and peroneus. I wish I could tell you that it didn’t hurt that bad but HOLY CRAP, it was so painful. Kari told me that the calf is one of the most tender places to needle, which makes sense. The best way to describe it was as a deep/burning muscle pain but it was over quickly.

I was instructed to drink a lot of water and move around to help with soreness. Kari warned me that my calf would feel pretty sore for about 24 hours after but then I should feel noticeable improvement. She was right, I was extremely sore immediately after the treatment. I sat at my desk for an hour and then got up to walk around and was hobbling. I chugged some water and went home and took the dogs for a walk and that helped so much. I felt pretty okay after that.

And five days later I can report that my calf feels 100% good and normal so I definitely think that the dry needling treatment benefited me post-race. Now whether or not I’ll make it a regular thing like Kari suggested remains to be seen. 😉

Have you ever experienced calf strain or achilles tendonitis? If yes, how did you treat it and how do you prevent it?

Have you ever tried dry needling?

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • 1
    Lauren C March 14, 2017, 9:33 pm

    Wow, that first pic shows how uncomfortable that was! Have never tried dry needling but have tried acupuncture and am wondering how they’re different?

    • 2
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:52 pm

      There’s a lot of info out there about how the two are different. I have never tried acupuncture (but am definitely open to it) so I can’t share a personal opinion!

  • 3
    Erin March 14, 2017, 9:35 pm

    I tried dry needling about a year ago to address some glute issues. The needles were attached to a low current. I felt pretty immediate improvement and for me it didn’t really hurt. It sounds a bit scary but I’d definitely recommend it as an alternative when other methods haven’t been successful.

    • 4
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:51 pm

      This is great to read. Thank you for taking a moment to share your experience. I know others will find it helpful!

  • 5
    Kelsey March 14, 2017, 10:47 pm

    I am a physical therapist and I use dry needling quite often. It makes a huge difference in muscular pain and can help wake up and activate muscles that have a hard time functioning (like the glutes!). It is well worth the pain, and I often find that it is much less painful than a massage to the same area.

    • 6
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:50 pm

      Kelsey – thank you for weighing in! I will definitely keep an open mind about it in the future! (And I could totally see how it would be beneficial for glute firing!)

  • 7
    Alison | Daily Moves and Grooves March 14, 2017, 11:02 pm

    During my physical therapy internship last semester abroad in Dublin, Ireland, they did LOTS of dry needling on their patients. They did a lot on me as well, and it is such an interesting and painful experience on those tight muscles for sure! My traps and calves reacted the most intensely to the dry needling, but you’re right, it felt a lot looser a few days after! It would be awesome if dry needling became a more prevalent treatment in PT clinics in the US!

    • 8
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:49 pm

      Hey Alison – thank you so much for sharing this. I found it to be so interesting!

  • 9
    Melissa March 15, 2017, 12:40 pm

    Hi I was hoping you would do a post about your warm up and cool down stretches before/after a run.

    • 10
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:48 pm

      I will absolutely add that to the “to blog about” list and make a video!

  • 11
    tara March 15, 2017, 1:12 pm

    what a timely post ! i am in the midst of some calf issues right now. mostly in the soleus area which has never happened to me. more in my right than my left but both are a bit sore and i cant pin down what activity is causing it. ive stopped running all together now but some days i wake up and they hurt and some days not. its so weird. ive started more foam rolling and got new shoes. i am going to try to roll my feet more i never thought of tight feet being the culprit ! thanks for the info on dry needling. i had it down at the base of my neck/scalp before to treat headaches and it really worked.

    • 12
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:48 pm

      Hey Tara – I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling this pain because it is no fun! Definitely take the time to figure out what’s going on with your body so that this doesn’t become an ongoing thing! I can’t imagine needling the neck and scalp. You are braver than me!

  • 13
    Em March 15, 2017, 2:38 pm

    I have never heard of dry needling, so this was interesting. After reading this post I googled it to learn more and really couldn’t find much in the way of studies or scientific journals about dry needling. Does anyone have any resources on that? I intrigued by the idea but am super hesitant to let someone stick needles into my muscles if it hasn’t been studied in a scientific way…

    • 14
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:47 pm

      I personally do not but I’ll ask Kari to weigh in!

  • 15
    Mary Ann Campbell March 15, 2017, 3:03 pm

    I first started dealing with calf strain this time last year. It started with a cycle class and slowly progressed to me not being able to walk. I was deviststed to be side-lined like that. What helped me was when a friend recommended a local chiropractor who specializes in Active Realase Technique (ART). It was life saving and game changing for me. After a few sessions, all my pain was gone. I still go back for periodic maintenance. It’s something I recommend for all my running friends.

    • 16
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:46 pm

      Yes yes to ART! It’s been great for me in the past too!

  • 17
    Nathaly March 15, 2017, 3:05 pm

    I’m glad your calf is doing ok by now!

    I experienced calf tightness before getting the worst shin splints I’ve ever felt. So yeah, calves are something to be really careful with.

    • 18
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:38 pm

      I have luckily never experienced shin splints but I have heard that they are just the worst.

  • 19
    Alyssa March 16, 2017, 11:22 am

    I am a big fan of dry needling! I tore my hamstring several years ago and dry needling really helped me turn a corner in my recovery. It does hurt slightly, but I was amazed at how much it helped. And went you feel that release from the needle it’s so wonderful! I have had the calf done and it’s by far the most painful! 😫

    • 20
      Jen March 16, 2017, 6:27 pm

      Oh Alyssa – hamstring injuries are SO painful. I’m sorry you had to endure that. I’m happy to hear that dry needling helped you! (And happy to hear that I’m not alone in thinking the calf was agony!)

  • 21
    kate March 17, 2017, 11:13 am

    I’ve never heard of dry needling, so this is interesting! I do acupuncture (bi-weekly) for my migraines, and if I’m particularly sore (usually my wrists…darn desk job) i’ll ask her to needle that area while I’m there which always helps to loosen it up. I will have to look at the difference between the two, but I do love my acupuncture!

  • 22
    adrianna March 18, 2017, 11:02 pm

    love this post and loved reading all the comments, too! in particular about those who got this for glute issues, as that’s where i tend to have the most niggles and pains. well, and my hip area, too. will keep this in mind for sure!

  • 23
    Holly March 19, 2017, 9:51 pm

    Is this just another name for acupuncture? Now I’m wondering what the difference is.

  • 24
    Tamara April 3, 2017, 2:55 am

    I’ve had awful Achilles tendonitis for over 6 months now. I’ve been getting dry needling for about 2-3 months. It sure does hurt. I think things are slowly getting better, but the slow progress can be quite depressing. While things are healing slowly I think I need to focus on other exercises/activities I can do rather than getting depressed about the fact that I can’t run. It’s encouraging to know you have faced and gotten through these issues!

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