Dear Mayo Clinic: I tore my calf muscle running a few months ago and underwent physical therapy. It seemed to heal well, but last weekend I tried running for the first time since the injury. After a couple of miles, I felt a strain in my calf. Is there anything else I can do, or will I have to give up running? I am a 51-year-old male.
A: Your situation is common, especially for runners your age. You probably won’t have to give up running, but you may need to ease up a bit and give your body more time to heal. Additional physical therapy can help you work through that process.
Calf muscle injuries are among the most common for runners over 40, particularly men. This type of soft tissue injury can heal, but it takes time. For younger runners, recovering from a calf muscle injury usually takes about 6-8 weeks. At 51, however, you’ve lost some flexibility and elasticity in your soft tissue. That means recovery is going to take longer – possibly 12 weeks or more.
Taking it slow is key to a successful recovery. Start at just 15 minutes of running every other day, and stay at that level for a week. If you can do that without pain, move up to 20 minutes of running every other day for another week. Once you can achieve that, add another five minutes to your runs each week. At that time, you also can add one more day to your weekly running schedule. If at any point you feel discomfort, take your running down to the previous level you achieved without pain. Even when you are completely healed, you may not be able to run as far or as fast as you once did.
You also may want to incorporate cross-training into your routine to help you stay fit without risk of another injury. An elliptical trainer or a stationary bike, swimming or outdoor biking can provide quality workouts.
At this time, it would be wise to see your physical therapist for additional evaluation and therapy. He or she can provide guidance on exercises to strengthen your calf muscle. An example involves standing on a step with your heels hanging over the edge, and then slowly lowering your heel down, so you control the descent of your leg with the calf muscles.
You may want to consider undergoing a runner’s evaluation, too. A physical therapist or sports medicine physician can conduct this assessment while you run on a treadmill. As you run, they will watch your gait for signs of biomechanical issues that could raise your risk for injury. Correcting those issues could reduce your chances of future injuries.
Another step to help prevent additional injury is to ensure you always warm up thoroughly before you start running. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to walk before you run. A warm-up allows for more blood flow to your muscles, making them less likely to strain.
If running is a priority for you, using a slow, measured approach with guidance from a physical therapist is the best way to recover from this type of injury. It will take time, but with discipline and patience, you’ll likely be able to enjoy running again.