From Stride to Struggle: My Calf Injury From Running

Chloe running in Italy

There’s something almost nonsensical about a physical therapist getting a running injury. As a physical therapist who works with the running community a lot AND as a person who has been running for twenty years, you’d think that this combination of knowledge and experience would do me some good in preventing an injury. But what I will say is that when you take this combination of knowledge and experience and begin to experiment, you can run into some issues, just like I did a few weeks ago. Now what I’ll add is that I’m using this knowledge and experience to discover new possibilities in my training, rediscover that which I already know, and reorient myself around my training. Before I get into all of that, let’s talk about what happened to cause my calf injury and why it happened (aside from being a bad patient)

The Calf Injury

So this hasn’t been confirmed with any imaging, but my calf injury is presenting like I have a stress reaction or at the very least severe shin splints. I won’t get into the difference between stress fractures, reactions, and shin splints for the purposes of this post, but I’ll say that I feel a radiating pain up the length of my shin while walking and it’s mildly tender when I touch or palpate it. But let me take you back to recall the weeks of neglect that got me here.

How it Started

This actually began with my right hip. That’s always been my “problem side.” If I’m going to have tightness in my hip flexor, it’s on that side; if my SIJ is going to brother me, it’s on that side; if I’m going to have difficulty engaging my glute, it’s on that side. You see a trend. Well, months prior, I had started doing more speed work.  I could feel that I was having hip flexor tightness and difficulty engaging my glute. And to no one’s surprise I kept going.  I mildly addressed it through two long yoga practices per week and I used these yoga sessions as justification in my mind to keep going.

Chloe running before her calf injury in Santa Monica California
Chloe running on the Beach in CA

The problem really started to expose itself when the tight hip flexor and decreased glute activation began to place more demands on my inner hamstring and adductor (inner thigh muscles).  Progressively, I began to feel tightness throughout my calf, particularly my inner calf. As an aside, one of the most common compensations that I talk about with patients is that of the calf for what the glute can’t do. There are two main muscles for propulsion.  One being your glute and the other being your calf. Well, when your glute isn’t doing its job, there is more demand placed on the calf. That’s typically when a calf injury pops up and that’s what happened to me: My hip flexor prevented my glute from firing, and then my glute asked my calf to take over. And it did.

When I Pushed Too Far

One fateful evening, I was leaving work even later than normal, and I figured that I’d run the 2 miles home. After working a full day with lots of standing, sitting, and no stretching, I changed from my work clothing to my running clothing.  I put on my sneakers, and started running like any bad patient would. Immediately when I went up a hill, I could feel my calf pulling around the inner shin. I didn’t think much of it, because I was able to finish my run. However, in the weeks following, I was noticing progressively more tightness in my inner calf. And yet, I continued.

I started to get more serious about foam rolling and stretching my calf, glute, and hip flexor before each run. I have always done a pre-run primer, but I added in some more mobility work. The real issue was that I didn’t do much to change what I did AFTER my run. I would finish, kinda stretch my calf for 10-15 seconds, and then go about my day. I know, I know. This is really where my thinking didn’t make any sense. This is where my knowledge and experience should have come to my aid. But! This is what I always say: my patterns/routines are just as ingrained as my patients’ are. It’s REALLY HARD to change your routine. I had built in a warm up into my allocated time, but doing any recovery work after was not accounted for.

Chloe running in Italy before her calf injury
Chloe running in Italy

My (THEN) Current Training Schedule

The other problem was that my training was taking on this sort of hybrid of half marathon training and 5k training. I was doing about 43-48 miles per week with 2 speed workouts.  The speed workouts consisted of one on the track and a tempo, both with splits based off of 5k pace. My long run was 10ish miles, and I regularly made it a sort of progressive run. Then the other runs throughout the week were all moderately paced. Yes, I get it. For any of you reading this with some experience with training, you can tell that this doesn’t make sense. Add on top of that the lack of recovery work, and you can see where this is going. (Well, I told you already.)

It Finally Caught Up To Me

After weeks of continuing to do something that wasn’t working, I got to the point where I couldn’t walk without pain. Not only was my calf really tight, but my shin started to hurt. It was worse in the morning and after running. I could feel it sort of aching even at rest. Now, given the progressive compensations, continued training, and lack of recovery, I still ran another week or two, like any sane person would who isn’t completely obsessed with running. My final run, I ran around Lehigh’s track and stopped every mile to stretch my calf and hip. With each painful step (quite literally every step was painful), I knew that I’d probably have to take off some time.

Calf Recovery Techniques

I finally decided that what I needed was some time off and focus on recovering. I had been asking John to treat my calf injury, but I ramped up my own treatment. I foam rolled my entire leg, focusing particularly on my calf. I stretched my calf, foot, shin muscles, and entire hip. I used our recovery equipment. And I rested.

Chloe running in Santa Monica CA. She is recovering fully from her calf injury recovery
Chloe in Santa Monica, CA

How I'm Keeping My Sanity

Yeah, so that rest part is not particularly enjoyable for me. I like running, well, not only do I like running, I love it. I’m pretty much (definitely) obsessed with it. It’s a part of who I am. And I felt like some of me was missing. Day 2 of not running due to my calf injury was miserable to put it lightly.  Poor John. My poor friends. They all heard about my despair. But! That began to change once John had suggested trying doing intervals on the bike. You know those old school Schwinn bikes? With the legs and arms and the propeller as the front wheel? Yeah, that. We have the modern day version of the Assault bike. It’s nicknamed the devil’s tricycle. I can attest to the fact that both names are apt. 

I started doing interval workouts, absolutely crushing myself with varying intervals and durations of time. And it was magical. Not only did I find a fix for my desire to elevate my heart rate and sweat, but I discovered a means of addressing gaps in my training. You know how I said that I did a track workout and a tempo, well I don’t do any short duration speed work. I’m talking about 20-40 sec intervals. But I do now on the bike.

What I've Learned

In the process what I’m learning is that my pie chart of fitness has to be reallocated. Yes, running is what I want to do. I love training, and I’ll even say that I love over training. But running can’t be the only thing I do. I had a lot of good components. I had a slice for yoga, strength training, warm up routine, but now I want to reallocate to include a more robust recovery routine and bike workouts to round out my training. This is a big change and I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes me.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting my weekly update on my injury and training. I’ll take you along (if you want to come) for my recovery, including the time away from running and then as I transition back. My hope is that you can read my story (or watch my long youtube vid) and learn something or, at least, know that I totally get what it means to struggle with an injury. And I can honestly say that this sort of thing is what helps me be a better physical therapist for my patients.

If there’s anything in particular that you want me to go into more detail about, let me know on our social media, and I’ll be sure to include it next week!

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On Monday we begin a new cycle of MDFit.  We will be incorporating all new primers and exercises to bulletproof our bodies.  Stop dealing with frustrating tweaks and twinges.  You don’t just have to stop.  Prevent them by joining the functional fitness program that has been created for people just like you!

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