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Ask IHS: “Why do my calves and shins hurt after running?”

As the weather improves and races like the Indy Mini and Monumental Marathon come around, you should prepare now. 

A number of runners and jogging enthusiasts come into IHS asking, “Does acupuncture relieve tight calf muscles?” A surprising number of them have been running forever with the assumption this pain is just a normal part of running. 

Calf and shin pain isn’t a normal part of running. And it’s detrimental to your form, long-term health, your legs, and your ability to run well.

Dry needling or acupuncture can help any runner with pain in your heels, calves, legs, and thighs. And the result of this pain can come from three things that all work together:

  1. Poor running form binds up the muscles in your leg to overwork in some areas and underperform in others. If you find yourself hunched over too far, standing too upright, having too long a stride, or always striking the ball of your foot while running can cause pain. “Bouncing” off the ground with the ball of your foot is another common cause of calf pain.
  2. Having generally tight muscles can cause poor mechanics. Your body’s natural movement can hinder itself if you’re generally too tight in your hips or thighs. You can relieve this tightness by stretching, performing yoga, or just warming up a little more slowly before a run. Consider deep leg lunges as a great first step. The same after a workout can also help, as well as regular deep tissue massage, cryotherapy, and acupuncture or dry needling.
  3. Everything’s connected. As the song goes, the leg bone is connected to the knee bone, and so on. Sometimes patients come to IHS with knee pain that’s actually caused by twisted or tightened calf muscles that are pulling awkwardly or negatively against the knee. In this way, your body’s tight muscles are causing more harm than good and can cause serious injury long-term.

And the reasons for any of these issues are complicated. For instance, if you sit at a desk for 8 hours and then bound down the stairs for a run, that hour of exercise is great, but it’s also really hard on your body. Like moving from a hot shower to a really cold one, the extremes take a toll.

Shin splints, calf pain, and Achilles tendon issues are all frequently caused by increasing your activity level too quickly. This puts a ton of demand on your leg muscles and feet. You don’t start your car and rev it to 60 in the middle of winter, so don’t sit for 40 hours and run a 5k on a whim, either.

What is the fastest way to relieve tight calves?

In the short term, take a break, ice it, and elevate your leg. That’ll work to reduce some pain for a few days afterwards. But if you find you can’t run more than a mile or two without your knees or legs causing pain that goes beyond exercise fatigue, schedule a consultation.

Are tight calves or shins bad long-term? 

Tightness in your calves or shins leads to poor form for everything else. For instance, you might struggle to lift or walk. Your sleep patterns may be interrupted as blood struggles to circulate properly in your legs, which leads to cramps. And you may just feel that “muscle ache” sensation after a heavy workout, but all the time

In the worst case scenario, this can lead to a stress fracture. Or set in deep with calf soreness in your lower leg that leads to calf injury, muscle tears, or prolonged pain.

How does dry needling or acupuncture help loosen muscles?

We strategically place needles by finding the most tender and tight band of muscles in your legs. This is slightly different in everybody. But the presence of the needle causes the muscle to involuntarily contract. Using this technique, we can “unwind” muscles 

My calves still hurt no matter what I stretch or do. What now?

Dry needling can still be a useful strategy for you because it can go deeper faster than most any other kind of massage or stretching. But you might also consider running slower. 

It sounds counterintuitive, but running slower can help you self-regulate. The funny thing about running is most people aren’t great at regulating their pace. In swimming, cycling, and rowing most people naturally fall into a cadence that allows them to keep going without stopping. 

Runners, however, often run out of the gate so fast they have to walk or stop entirely for breaks. This isn’t great technique. If you can run while talking or reciting something, like the Pledge of Allegiance or “Happy Birthday”, and not get winded, you’re running at the right pace. 

Is acupuncture better than massage?

Not necessarily, just two techniques for the same goal. We usually combine them together in our treatment of calf and shin pain patients.

What should I do — or not do — after dry needling?

Avoid coffee and alcohol. They dehydrate the body. Instead, load up on lots of water. 

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Integrated Health Solutions

Integrated Health Solutions