People making the transition to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes sometimes experience calf pain or even calf injuries. They can also feel pain in their Achilles tendon.
I have talked with plenty of people who assume this kind of pain is just part of the transition process from running in typical running shoes to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.
If you’ve heard this, too, I have good news for you:
Pain isn’t a necessary part of the process!
I like to say “calf and Achilles pain is optional” (if you know what to do).
I am going to first give you an overview of why runners might experience calf pain in the first place before turning to barefoot running and why I think the conventional wisdom here is wrong.
Why We Get Achilles Tendon and Calf Pain when Running
Your calf has a set of muscles (including the gastrocnemeus and soleus muscle) that connect to the Achilles tendon and provide both the power for pushing with your foot, as well as controlling how your heel comes down to the ground if you land on the ball of your foot.
The most basic reason runners experience calf pain is overworking the muscles and tendons.
This can happen for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it is because they were used to apply an amount of force the muscles are not used to. For instance, if you’re used to running on flat surfaces but then go for a run on a hill, your calf muscles are going to be working a lot harder than usual. This can also happen with a sudden increase in distance.
In other cases, it isn’t that the force is too much but that it goes on for so long. To put it differently, the muscles are pushed past their point of endurance.
Sometimes, a runner’s calf muscles have simply been asked to work before a proper warm up or stretch. Tight calves that are suddenly put to work places a lot of strain on the muscles.
Whatever the reason, pain is your body’s way of telling you that your muscles need a rest, and that you probably need to use your calves differently once you’re feeling better.
Sore calves are a normal effect of exercise and nothing to worry about. Severe calf pain, on the other hand, is an indication of a more serious problem. If you overwork your calf muscle, you risk injuries like a calf strain or even a calf tear. Muscle tears are painful and can require a long recovery process.
In short, then, tendon or calf pain is an indication that you’ve overdone it in some way.
Why People Assume Calf and Tendon Pain Are Just Part of Barefoot Running
When you run barefoot, you run differently than if you’re in typical shoes (get tips on how to run barefoot here). Generally speaking, runners who are used to thick, modern running shoes will tend to land heel first with their foot contacting the ground well in front of their body.
Once making the switch to either no shoes or minimalist ones, most runners will probably stop landing that way. Why? Because it hurts to land on your heel!
Instead, barefoot runners will tend to adopt a mid-foot or fore-foot strike pattern, landing with the heel initially off the ground. In that running form, the calf muscles act as shock absorbers, controlling the speed with which your heel comes down to the ground (or near it). This “eccentric” or “negative” loading can place greater demands on calf muscles and tendons than they used to.
It makes sense, then, that transitioning to barefoot-style running could lead to overworking of the calf muscles and therefore to calf pain and soreness.
Most people think the issue is that the calf muscles are too weak because of previous underuse and the solution is to make the calf muscle stronger.
In other words, people believe that calf and Achilles soreness is practically inevitable when you try running barefoot, and that building strength is the eventual cure.
But that story is missing something important.
Why Calf and Tendon Pain Are Avoidable
I say that it is missing something and not that it is totally wrong.
It is true that barefoot running usually means a new (and more natural) running technique that can place more demands on the calf muscle.
But this doesn’t need to lead to calf pain when running.
The most common problem many runners have when they begin to run barefoot is that they simply use more effort than necessary when they run.
Consider that there are two ways to keep your calf muscles from being overworked: to have stronger muscles for a given amount of work or to reduce the work required. Runners usually assume they need to do the first thing – build up their calf muscles with strengthening exercises.
From what we’ve seen, having heard from tens of thousands of new-to-barefoot runners, the “secret” to reducing your odds of having calf pain is to do less and relax more.
So let’s take a deeper look at this other option: to prevent calf pain or calf injury by reducing the amount of work you ask your calves and Achilles to do.
The Common Mistakes Barefoot Runners Make
Okay, so how do we do less and relax more?
It all comes down to form.
New barefoot runners often have two other habits that put unnecessary strain on their muscles and tendons, putting them at risk of calf muscle injuries:
Overstriding while landing on the mid-foot or ball of the foot
Most new barefooters hear that you should land on the ball of your foot, or on your midfoot.
It’s true. BUT, the mistake many make is using the same form they have in regular shoes – landing with their foot in front of their body (“overstriding”), and then merely pointing their toes.
When you land with your foot further in front of your body, you’re basically “putting on the brakes” which puts excessive force on your foot.
If you point your toes to land on your forefoot, you use your calf and Achilles to decelerate and this amount of force is more than most people’s calves can handle. In fact, it’s more than the bones of your foot are made to handle so you’re also risking a stress fracture.
Sure, getting freakishly strong may make that easier to do, but the correct solution is to “stop putting on the brakes” when you land by stopping your over-striding and, instead, placing your foot more underneath your body when you land.
By not applying that breaking force, your calves don’t have to do as much work.
One way to learn to land with your foot underneath you is by increasing your cadence – the number of steps you take per minute – without running faster. This quicker cadence makes it harder to overstride.
There’s actually a recent study on this. Researchers found that runners with a history of recurrent calf strain injuries land with their heels further away from their center of mass.
Similarly, if you remove your foot from the ground by pushing off with your toes, you’re essentially doing bodyweight calf raises every time you take a stride… and even a short run would be more than your body can handle.
Again, the solution isn’t to hit the gym to lift weights or cross train to improve your calf raise strength. It’s to LIFT your foot off the ground (instead of pushing) by flexing at the hip.
I know that sounds weird, so let me give you an image to help it make sense:
Imagine what happens if you stepped on a bee and it stung your foot… you wouldn’t try to push away from the ground since that would drive the stinger further into your sole. You would reflexively (faster and easier) pull your foot from the ground with a hip flex.
You want to use that same hip flex to get your foot off the ground when you run. You’re still using your calf muscles, but not nearly as much as you do by “toe-ing off.”
How to Find the Right Running Style that Won’t Lead to Tendon or Calf Strain
In order to use less effort, you’ll probably have to start with less running.
Even when you make the adjustments I just described, barefoot running will have you using your lower leg muscles in new ways that will take some time to get used to.
The key thing at this early stage to prevent calf injuries is to be patient and listen to your body. Calf tightness isn’t something to worry over. Make sure you are warming up with some calf stretches to keep loose.
On the other hand, sharp pain in your feet or calves, shin splints, calf strains — these are all clear messages from your body that something isn’t right. You may even find that you are getting calf pain in your left calf but not your right calf. That can be an indication that you are getting it right with one leg but not yet the other.
If you are willing to take it slowly and make adjustments, it is just a matter of time before you find the running form that will feel easy and fun.
And you’ll find that you will be able to run your usual distances and times sooner than you think.
By the way, it isn’t just calf pain that is a potential issue. Running injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints are common, and researchers suggest an important risk factor is increases in the volume or pace of training. Injury prevention requires respecting your body’s limits.
By the time you figure everything out, you will probably have gained any extra strength you need.
Barefoot Running…in Shoes?
I have mentioned minimalist shoes in this article about running barefoot and calf pain. Maybe that confused you. If so, let me explain.
Barefoot running is all about recovering a natural running form that allows our bodies to function the way they are designed. It seems obvious that doing what’s natural is better for our bodies. It’s also a lot more fun. It’s really more about how your feet move than about what you have on them.
It’s about the form, not the footwear.
There is a relationship between the two, however. Minimalist shoes (also called barefoot shoes) are designed specifically to give you the flexibility and feedback that let you maintain natural movement without you having to walk around in bare feet. So you can absolutely try barefoot walking or running without having to ditch footwear, as long as it’s the right footwear.
We’ve put together a handy tool to help you find the perfect pair of barefoot shoes (or sandals) for you. Why not have a look?
The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.