You're humming along, enjoying a solid pace, when three quarters of the way to the finish line your calf or hamstring seizes up, stopping you in your tracks. Frustratingly, there's nothing you can do about it but stop, gently stretch, and hope it settles down quickly. Then pray you can resume running without awakening that little sucker!
I've had several clients over the years who've sought my help because they were prone to these types of muscle cramps and I've noticed a few patterns I thought I'd share with you. Mainly it can be summed up with the following statement:
Smaller Muscles That Try To Perform The Role Of Larger Muscles Are Prone To Cramping
Calves and hamstrings are commonly implicated when cramping strikes because they are [less qualified] substitutes for your glutes. Your glutes (along with your core) should be a primary stabilizer of your pelvis when your foot hits the ground and a primary mover as you toe off.
In other words, your butt needs to be working properly. The glute max is a really powerful muscle and is far larger than your calves and hamstrings. If it's neurally shut down (“inhibited”) then you're left to rely on smaller muscles to stabilize your hips and propel you down the road. You won't get very far or go very fast if that's your body's movement strategy.
Put simply, your calves or hamstrings are doing the work of the glutes. That's not fair now, is it?
Simple fix: Foam roll or massage your calves for 30 seconds, then perform a set of 10 bridges before going for a walk or run. I often recommend doing 2 sets a couple times a day so that your brain can learn how to use your glutes better and not rely on the calves so much.
Another relationship that is quite common is that your calves are working for your hip flexors and/or quads. In this case, it's a stability strategy that has gone wrong.
As your foot hits the ground and you get into the stance phase of the running stride, your hip flexors should engage to stabilize your knee, pelvis and spine. When those muscles are not available to the brain, you're body will be in search of something else that can be a stabilizer. The calves are a great temporary option, but not a good long-term strategy.
To visualize this, think of doing a forward lunge. The quads and calves help to slow the body down so that your knee doesn't track too far in front of your toes as you lower into the lunge.
Same thing happens during the running stride. If the hip flexors are not working properly, your calves will be forced to step up and take on the role of one or more hip flexors. Again, you may get away with that for a little while, but raise your mileage or crank the speed and these issues are quickly brought to light – often quite painfully!
Simple fix: Foam roll or massage your calves for 30 seconds, then perform a set of 10 straight leg raises with the opposite knee bent (to protect the back). I often recommend doing 2 sets a couple times a day so that your brain can learn how to use your glutes better and not rely on the calves so much.
**HUGE CAVEAT** If you sit all day and like to wear shoes with an elevated heel, you will have much harder time dealing with this issue than someone who doesn't.
Sitting shuts down your glutes while lifting your heel up tenses the calves (and inhibits the glutes!). Stop that. You can't do a few sets of release and activation and expect to undo your lifestyle habits. Can you stand more often and wear flatter shoes?
Finally, I'd recommend getting assessed so that your unique compensation patterns can be uncovered. These are merely examples of some common relationships. Contact me for more info!