Why are the fronts of my calves tight and what do you recommend?
January 20, 2015 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been going to the gym for the past few months! It's the best! But the front outsides of my calves and the tops of my feet are being weird and it's getting in the way.

I am doing a mixture of weights, cardio and stretching; I do weights and some cardio three times a week and another two days of cardio and stretching, plus bike commuting. I am - let's face it - fairly fit compared to the average American of my age but Not Very Fit At All from a Being Serious About The Gym standpoint.

I basically can't do a bodyweight squat - part of this is being fat, part of it is tight hips and a weak core, and that's getting better with working out. But the front outside of my calves hurts and basically won't let me drop to parallel.

(Just to clarify before you read the rest - this doesn't seem like shin splints - it's on the outside of the calf, for one thing, and it just doesn't seem bad enough.)

Similarly, when I am on the treadmill the front outsides of my calves feel painful and the tops of my feet/outside bottoms of my ankles are really achy. I feel like when I'm going fast (fast walking, occasional bursts of jogging; goal of moving toward more jogging) it's difficult to pick my feet up enough, and sometimes my toes catch a tiny bit. It's not enough to make me unstable, but I can hear the front of my shoe sort of catching on the platform.

It is actually bad enough that I think it's limiting my workout a bit - I feel like I could go faster and do more if I didn't have this problem, and that just seems bizarre since it's not a failure of strength or exhaustion. I mean, there's basically not much major muscle or anything on the front outside of the calf! Stretches do not seem to target this part of the leg, much less the top of the foot!

What are my bizarre legs even doing, mefites? And what should I be doing about it?
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have been noticing similar-ish problems since I bought a new pair of shoes; they make my feet and the outsides of my lower legs extremely tired, and I'm not sure why, but I'm planning on changing them out soon because it's making me cranky.

Does it happen when you're barefoot?
posted by jaguar at 8:37 AM on January 20, 2015

Seconding that this could be a possible shoe problem - I had very similar issues with the outsides of my calves, even down to the ankle and foot soreness you describe. Switching to barefoot-style shoes that fit really well helped me - not the Vibram ones, but the Merrell barefoot styles that have a bit more support.
posted by bedhead at 8:43 AM on January 20, 2015

I think but am not positive that you are referring to your tibialis anterior muscles. Does this seem right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibialis_anterior_muscle

If so, that is indeed the muscle that is involved in shin splits (not that I am saying that's what you have).

In addition to a different shoe or shoe insert, you might benefit from foam rolling and/or massage on your foot and tib ants.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 8:45 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have the same problem. For me part of it is tight calves, and part of it is not using my quads enough to lift my legs. Instead, I end up using the tibialis anterior muscle to pull my toes up to prevent them from catching. That's already above-and-beyond the call of duty, and then it has to pull against my tight calves as well! Eventually the muscle gets painfully cramped. I've had good results with stretching my calves before running and then remembering to use my quads, especially when going uphill.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:12 AM on January 20, 2015

My guess is your calves and hamstrings are also really tight, and your glutes and hips are comparatively weak. This is a common situation and your increased activity is putting pressure on things that have a bit more give.

I'd spend more time doing plyometric exercises and foam rolling your calves (or with a lacrosse ball, ow!) and doing things like yoga to get your core strength up, while building flexibility. If your calves, hamstrings and quads aren't working as they should, your other muscles and tendons work overtime to prevent your feet from catching while walking or when doing things like squats and lunges.

If you can, get a handful of appointments with a well-recommended sports PT person. I recently did that for a weird pressure in my knees and quads, and they had me learn all sorts of non-knee exercises - my knees were compensating for weak hips and glutes. A few weeks into their program and I can already tell it's working. I'm so glad I didn't just continue to increase knee exercises without looking further up the muscle chain because it definitely was starting to aggravate the area.
posted by barnone at 9:14 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Front outside is peroneal/fibularis muscles, can't really help more than that. I have a similar problem - not so bad that I can't squat but I can't walk fast, especially uphill without a lot of pain and tightness. Haven't found a solution yet, I've tried foam rolling and professional massages (which helped loosen the residual tightness but didn't stop them from getting tight again) and strengthening exercises, none of it has really helped.

I'm currently working on these stretches http://www.teachpe.com/stretching/lower_leg_stretches.php

The not being able to pick up your feet thing though could be compartment syndrome, or it could just be that you're so tight that your legs just aren't doing what you tell them - I get that when I'm skating.
posted by missmagenta at 9:18 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

And what should I be doing about it?

I am not sure what exactly is going on, but I think it might be helpful to make an appointment with a physical therapist or a skilled trainer (someone who is familiar with muscular systems and can recommend specific exercises or stretches to target the problem). You might be able to see a PT through your health insurance if cost is a concern.

It's important to figure out & fix the cause of the problem - it could be your form while exercising, muscles that need stretching, or muscles that need strengthening (or some combination of those, or something else). If you don't fix the cause, you will probably use other muscles incorrectly to compensate and could end up with additional problems.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:20 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a stretch that might help; it should target the muscles that hurt. (It may help in the way that foam rolling helps, in that it hurts like a mofo while you do it but prevents the same pain in future workouts.)
posted by clavicle at 9:25 AM on January 20, 2015

Sounds like tendon irritation and/or muscle tightness. Change up your shoe game. Stretch. Wear compression socks. Massage the area. All of the above.
posted by domo at 9:44 AM on January 20, 2015

IME having a weak core can definitely lead to issues with your gait. Is this an issue you've ever had when just walking/running on the street, or is it a new thing just from treadmill running/walking? I personally can't deal with regular treadmills because it is weirdly impossible for me to walk or run normally on them. If your gym has the heavy tracked ones that you're actually pushing away with every step instead of running in place (idk what to call them, but the surface of them looks like the grippy sole of a hiking boot), that can help you adjust to your normal walking gait.

The not being able to pick up your feet sometimes also makes me feel like it might be core-weakness-related, since it sounds like you're relying on your hip flexors to lift your legs instead of starting the movement higher up/deeper in your psoas.

You might also benefit from doing some ankle strengthening stuff with elastic bands. Basically you just do it when you're sitting down anywhere like work or watching tv, have your feet shoulder/hip width apart with the elastic band taut at that distance, and you do a sort of scoopy-outward movement with one foot, maybe 20 times, and then the other. You need to do it with shoes on, though. Stuff like this has improved my issues with foot roll, which is similar looking to foot drop but has a ligament/tendon/hypermobility source rather than a neuro one.

This video shows what I'm talking about at 1:10 or so; I don't do it with holding one end in my hand because I'm usually doing this while online at work.

You can try doing seated leg press to build up strength to do squats, but since you are already a bike commuter I don't feel like your issue is actually leg strength at all. Maybe balance, maybe just being nervous about it? You can do squats on a bench to start out (in front of the bench, I mean, and squat until your butt hits the bench, not like, perched precariously atop one), there's nothing wrong with that.

Outside of the calf ache can also be related to ITB issues, I think? Foam rolling can help with that, as well as supine piriformis stretches, which are also good for hip opening.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:45 AM on January 20, 2015

(IANAPT, but I have spent a startlingly long amount of time in physical therapy. YMMV on all of this stuff, obviously.)
posted by poffin boffin at 9:46 AM on January 20, 2015

I do think it sounds like you are describing shin splits. It is just bad pain and aches in your shins, or as you call it, "the front outside of your calves." Have you tried to do anything for shin splits to see if it fixes it?

I got really bad shin splits when I was running everyday -- I powered through the pain and it only got worse. It eventually hurt so bad that I had to stop. I found that they were very easily cured and prevented with simple stretches. The main stretch that helped was: sit down so your knees bent at a 90 degree-angle, feet planted on the ground. Then lift your toes up and keep your heel planted and hold it. Then bring your toes down and repeat it. Ease into it, but try to lift your toe up as far as it can go, like you're trying to touch your toes to your shin. It stretches the muscle in the shin area.

The other thing that seemed to help my shin splits a lot was sole inserts for my running sneakers. I have high arches anyway (do you too?) and for whatever reason, some extra support and cushioning under my foot seemed to help prevent the shin splits from forming. I had to try a couple types to get comfortable inserts for my feet, but they helped a lot. I figure they must've fixed my gait or prevented certain muscles from getting overworked. (Something like this apparently can help with a lot of running problems.)
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:13 AM on January 20, 2015

I should add for that stretch I described: you can also go the other way and lift your heel up while your toes are on the ground. I think both of those motions stretch the muscle around the shin, I just kind of go back and forth doing both. And I would bet money you are experiencing anterior shin splints, which you feel more on the outside than in the center of your shin.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:24 AM on January 20, 2015

Yes, that IS shin splints. I get them too and what helps is to stretch them before/after workouts. Stand on something where your heels can hang off the edge (a platform, sidewalk curb, stair, etc) and rock back so that your heels drop below the edge and back up. Do them for a few minutes before and after each workout.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:36 AM on January 20, 2015

When my lower legs are tight and being weird on me and my toes are catching on stuff, it is usually a mineral deficiency. When you begin exercising more than you used to, you burn up and sweat out things at a higher rate. If you don't actively look to up your nutrition to account for that, you can quickly end up deficient.

For me, the first thing I look to for tight lower legs is potassium. If that is part of your issue here, it might help to have, say, a banana or some orange juice prior to your work out. But there are other minerals that can impact this type thing and, due to my genetic disorder, I need constantly work to stay on top of a number of minerals, including (in addition to potassium): Salt, calcium and magnesium. A deficiency in any of these can cause some wonkiness in muscles or the nervous system. Either system getting wonky can cause minor problems of this sort, that can grow if the deficiency gets worse.

Another possible culprit: B vitamins. They are water soluble, so when you sweat more, you lose more of them. They are also very important to neurological function. So that might be another angle to look at, especially if you are taking certain medications like ibuprofen. I took ibuprofen pretty much daily for about six years. When I was able to stop taking it, my need for b vitamin supplements went way down. So if you are taking ibuprofen for muscle aches when working out, I would consider supplementing them -- or look up the specific b vitamin that ibuprofen interferes with and supplement just that one. (I don't recall which one it is anymore. It's been a few years since I took any ibuprofen.)
posted by Michele in California at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2015

Sounds like tibialis anterior tightness. This massage therapy guide for shin splints (which lists the exact same pain regions you mentioned) helped me a ton when I was experiencing the same thing. Their diagram makes it look like it might be inner calf, but the trigger points are almost all in the upper part on the outside of the calf.

Try doing some self-massage, preferably trigger-point style with a lacrosse ball or rolling pin or something (the tiger tail-style massager is PERFECT for this one), right at the upper trigger point area on those diagrams. If it's super tender, you've found the spot. Just a few minutes of massage should immediately improve your dorsiflexion.

However, that only solves the immediate problem; in the long run, you still need to work on massaging your soleus, tib posterior, and gastrocnemius muscles so that your tib anterior won't have to work as hard to keep your foot dorsiflexed. I find trigger point self-massage ideal for all of these things, but yoga and stretching are good ways to approach the problem as well. Foam rolling your piriformis and strengthening your quads will help relieve the strain on the tib anterior, too.
posted by dialetheia at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2015

Here's a slightly better diagram showing the common location of the trigger point and its referred pain pattern. Just prod around in the upper outer part of your calf, close to the shin bone, until something hurts like hell in a strangely satisfying way, and that's probably it.
posted by dialetheia at 10:53 AM on January 20, 2015

Speaking of trigger points, I've found this book very helpful: The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. *eyes foam roller reluctantly*
posted by Lexica at 11:47 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The ankle ache and foot-dragging is probably just ankle inflexibility. The movement is called ankle dorsiflexion and problems with it are well know in Olympic weightlifting circles. It's exacerbated by high heels and not spending enough time in the bottom of a squat.

The easy way to fix poor ankle dorsiflexion, I've found, is just to spend a lot of time in a third-world squat. Since you can't currently do that unassisted, just open a normal door, face it end-on, grab a doorknob with each hand, and lean back against it to sit down to rock bottom. Keep your feet flat.

When this was a severe problem for me, I liked to do third-world squat holds totaling about five minutes (in sets that started at thirty seconds and gradually worked up to 5 minutes straight) after a brief warm-up and interspersed with soleus and gastroc stretches, ankle rotations in both directions, and a modified third-world squat where I lift my heels and drive my weight into the balls of my feet and focus on bringing my big toe towards my knee.

After a while you'll want to load this movement. I recommend the goblet squat first, before moving to barbell versions. This Dan John article is a good overview of that movement, and includes the doorknob drill too.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2015

If possible, could you diagram where the pain you're feeling is? I had some pain issues while squatting in roughly the area you're talking about, but maybe closer to the knee, and I went to physical therapy and it turned out somewhat counterintuitively that it was mostly the result of tightness in my hip flexor. Doing targeted stretches really helped, and hip flexor flexibility in general is very helpful with squatting, but I don't know if it's the same issue in your case.
posted by invitapriore at 12:03 PM on January 20, 2015

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