Calf strain injuries. Am I getting old. Part 2.
In the last blog we introduced some reasons why you may have an increased risk of developing calf strain injuries and the mechanisms by which these risks increase. As highlighted this blog will look to address what can be done to change the effects of age and its consequences, along with what properties assist with reducing muscle strain injuries of the calf.
As discussed aging alters the properties of the calf muscles. It reduces the cross sectional area of the fast twitch fibres. We also know that inactivity or even training type can alter the fascicle length of muscle fibres. Fascicles are the units of muscle that line up to create the muscle tissue. It is postulated that shorter fascicle lengths in muscle may increase the risk of strain injuries as they do not appear to deal well with the high speed, high force stretching motions that occur with tasks like running, particularly sports that require high speed accelerations or decelerations.
How do we address these?
My clinical experience suggests that there are two main areas that need to be addressed with a third item that alters the stress of the main areas to be addressed. These are increasing force producing capability. Increasing velocity capability under high force and the third factor is doing these tasks under stretched conditions.
The body is an intelligent and malleable organism. So it is of no surprise that if we gradually expose it to tasks that stress these characteristics, high force and high velocity and then eventually both with the inclusion of different lengths of tissue, we will create the required changes to make the calf robust.
What does this look like?
Most people will look to increase strength first and this is relevant if it is assessed that calf strength or muscular endurance is lacking (Tip: to measure muscular endurance of the calf attempt single leg calf raises on a step in a strict, controlled manner. If you cannot do >20-25 you may be lacking calf muscular strength and endurance) . Tasks such as calf raises both single and double leg with knee straight and bent in a progressive loading fashion (adding weight, can be as high as 1-1.5 times BW) is likely to significantly increase you calf strength. This will start to alter the reduction in cross sectional area loss of fast twitch fibres if you are lifting at a high intensity.
To address the high load, high force tasks jumping (plyometric tasks) add significant benefit. These can start as simple as double leg single vertical jumps , then progress to continuous bouncing jumps on the spot and then to jump tasks that require you moving forward (horizontally) both at speed and trying to cover distance. These tasks start to alter elastic (bouncing properties of the body) abilities and will start to increase the ability for the fascicles to withstand fast stretching tasks.
Once you are mastering these and do not have any issues with these jumps further emphasis can be placed on creating high force, high velocity stress on the calf at longer stretching lengths. This would look like sprint accelerations or decelerations. To add further resistance to these you can utilize hills or sleds to increase the force required to stabilize the ankle as well as propel the body. Obviously these tasks can be added earlier at a lower intensity, such as hill or sled walking or less than maximal speed runs. The increased length and speed has been shown to increase the fascicle length of muscle fibres, particularly in relation to hamstring muscle studies in sprint tasks and high velocity eccentric loading.
This by no means addresses everything to do with calf strain injuries or reducing your risk of calf injuries, but if you have gradually added these into your training plan it will increase the robustness of your calf and hopefully protect you from further calf strains.