Calf muscle strains are a very common sporting injury – particularly during activities that involve high speed or high volumes of running, acceleration and deceleration. Calf strains are especially troublesome as they can take a long time to return to sport and often occur during critical periods like the end of the competitive season.
Because of this, identifying the risk factors for injury may assist us to better assess, manage and prevent calf strains.
A recent review by Brady Green and Tania Pizzari of La Trobe University in Victoria analysed the results of 10 previous studies on the topic, accounting for over 5000 participants of football, aussie rules, rugby union, basketball and triathlon.
The risk factors Brady and Tania investigated were:
- Chronological age
- Individual player characteristics (such as sex, limb dominance, height, mass etc)
- Match characteristics, fatigue and schedule
- History of calf muscle strain injury
- History of other previous lower limb injury
- Other external variables (temperature, rainfall etc)
The review found that increased player age and history of previous calf muscle strain injury were the strongest risk factors for future calf strains.
There was only limited evidence that other previous lower limb soft tissue or joint injuries, being in the preseason period or having an increased body mass index may contribute to future calf muscle strains and no association was found with other individual characteristics (absolute mass, limb dominance, height etc), decreased recovery time between games/trainings or environmental factors such as temperature.
So why do increased age and history of previous calf muscle strain increase the risk of a future injury?
There are a number of age related neuromuscular and structural changes that can lead to a greater risk of muscle strains. A slight decrease in neuromuscular control means that muscles may not fire at the perfect time, at the perfect amount or in the perfect order for the activity at hand, leading to potential overload in one area. Add to this the fact that muscle tissue loses strength and elasticity with age, and you can see why it is such a strong risk factor for strain injuries.
Having a previous calf muscle strain simply mimics the aging process in that muscles that are not rehabilitated fully tend to have neuromuscular and strength/flexibility deficits when returning to sport.
The good news is that although you can’t change your age or your history of calf muscle injuries, there are some things you can do that may decrease the risk of these factors contributing to future strains.
Other studies have shown that increasing eccentric strength (when muscles lengthen while contracting) and fascicle length (the length of the components of a muscle) of the hamstring muscles can decrease the risk factors associated with age and previous injuries that tend to cause future hamstring strains.
These effects have not been full studied for the calf muscle complex, meaning further research is needed to figure out how exactly to apply these same principles, but one simple exercise you can do to maintain the length and eccentric strength of your calf muscles can be found below.
Heel drop downs
- Stand with one foot on the edge of a step with the other foot resting lightly for balance if needed.
- Take 3-5 seconds to lower your heel down. At the bottom of the movement you should feel a comfortable stretch but no pain. Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds.
- Return to the starting position and repeat 10 times on each leg.
You may also need other specific speed and agility exercises to ensure your calf muscles are able to cope with the demands of your chosen sport, so for a full assessment and treatment plan, give one of our friendly staff a call on 3198 4444 or book online.