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Backpacking Fitness

Calf Pain – Common Causes and Solutions

Feeling calf pain with every step? Take these measures so you can crush hills without crushing your calves.

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We’ve all been there: You arrive at the top of a steep climb, and as good as getting to the summit feels, you’re plagued by the feeling that your calves are about to burst open. Your Achilles tendon connects your heel to your calf muscle, providing essential power for ascending. But too many of these raises can irritate the tendon, causing calf pain that worsens with each step.

Luckily, experts have honed in on a few likely culprits for your ache, and some preventative measures you can take to crush hills without crushing your calves.

Why Do My Calves Hurt?

Calves flex the foot and help you toe off on each step, making them essential but easily stressed muscles for hiking and backpacking. Much of this stress comes from uphills: You’re moving against gravity, often with a heavy pack on. That means your muscles and joints are working even harder to keep you moving, and proper form is essential to staying injury-free. It’s natural to want to lean toward the hill as you ascend, but if you do this, make sure you’re not hinging from the hip. You should be only slightly leaning forward and from the ankles. Leaning too far forward or backward throws off your balance and could also lead to injury. Using correct form means you’re engaging the right muscles and not straining any smaller or weaker muscles.

Your calf pain could also come from improper footwear. Boots that don’t fit correctly will likely result in joint or ligament pain, so it’s important to make sure your boots support your whole foot. Your toes shouldn’t feel crowded or swim around in a spacious toe box. Pay attention to the arch as well. With every step, hiking boots bend at the ball of your foot, and so the arch of your foot should match the arch on your boot. If you don’t feel like your boot is supporting and cushioning your arch of the foot, get insoles or boots that better fit the contours of your feet. Anything that affects your natural gait or correct hiking form could put you at risk of injury.

Why Do I Feel Calf Pain Mid-Step?

Your calves are a vital part of helping you push off while walking: The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles connect via the Achilles tendon to your heel, and help flex your foot when you take a step. These muscles, which form much of what is considered the calf, are prone to strains when overworked. You may feel pain while walking because these muscles are flexing on each step, exacerbating any strains or damage.

A hiker's legs as he stands on a rock wall, overlooking a forest and distant mountain
There are two main muscles in the calf: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These two muscles come together and attach to the Achilles tendon. (Photo: Saturated via Getty Images)

What Can I Do About Calf Pain?

If your calf pain is affecting your ability to walk, you could have a strained muscle. In this case, remember RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Take a break from hiking for a bit, put your leg up, use a compression sock, and place a bag of ice on the affected area.

If the pain is less acute, massaging your muscles can help you get back on trail. Using a trekking pole or other cylindrical object as a massage tool, apply firm pressure and glide the tool up and down along the calf. Start about 6 inches above the ankle, and target both sides of your lower leg, focusing on the thicker top portion of your calf. Massage for 3 to 5 minutes, making sure the pressure never gets painful.

Following the massage, a simple calf stretch can help eliminate lingering tightness. Place the ball of your foot against a tree trunk or other upright object, and lean towards it to extend and stretch the calf. Hold the stretch on each side for two to three minutes, stopping earlier if it becomes uncomfortable.

Cropped view of two women standing side by side in a gym on step exercise equipment, doing calf raises.
In a calf raise, your bodyweight should press evenly on the ball of your foot. (Photo: kali9 via Getty Images)

How Can I Prevent Calf Pain?

There are a few exercises that can help strengthen your lower leg muscles for hiking, allowing you to trek up the steeps without hurting your calves.

Three-way Calf Raise

By changing the foot position with this exercise, you can focus on the inner or outer head of the gastrocnemius or work them equally. Take a 30 second rest in between each position.

First Position:
This position will work both heads of your calf together.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and feet pointed straight ahead. Using a wall or countertop for support, raise your heels, coming onto the balls of your feet. With control, lower back down to the start position and repeat.

Second Position:
By pointing your feet outward, the exercise will target your inner calf muscle.

With feet shoulder-width apart, keep your heels in place but point your feet outward at a 45 degree angle. The start position should be heels shoulder-width apart and toes outside of your heels.

Third Position:
Having your toes pointed inward will target the outside portion of your upper calf muscle.

Widen your stance so your feet are outside of your shoulders and point your toes inward at about a 45 degree angle. Here, your toes will be inside of your heel position. As you perform the reps you may need to adjust your heels to keep them in place, they may drift inward during the movement.

Seated Soleus Raise

This exercise will target the soleus. Because your knee is bent during this exercise, the gastrocnemius is largely inactive, leaving the soleus to do the work. Perform this exercise one leg at a time.

Sit on a bench or chair with the knees bent to about 90 degrees and feet flat on the ground. Place a dumbbell, kettlebell, or loaded backpack weighing 25 to 30 pounds on your upper leg near the knee. Using a three-second raise and lower tempo, raise your heel up as high as it will go, and with no pause at the top, slowly lower your heel back to the floor. Each rep should last about six seconds.

Single-Leg Elevated Calf Raise

Performing a single-leg calf raise is a great way to challenge each calf muscle without receiving assistance from the other calf. When two-legged exercises are performed, the stronger side will often do more work than the weaker side. By doing a single-leg calf raise, each leg has to work to its fullest extent.

Stand with the ball of your foot on a step so the heel is hanging off the edge. Using the wall or railing for support, slowly lower your heel toward the floor. At the bottom of the lowering phase, press through the ball of your foot to raise your heel as high as possible before lowering down again.

-Lee Welton