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Running is a great way to build up the main muscles in your calf.
If you're looking to strengthen and tone the muscles in your calves, running is a great way to do it. Running is a natural activity that involves your entire leg, and the action of propelling yourself forward off the balls of your feet involves each major muscle in the calf. As you run, a combination of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles in your calf push the entirety of your weight off your foot, so the muscles in your calves have to be some of the strongest muscles in your entire body.
Making Muscles Grow
Muscles grow in size and strength through a process of injury and recovery. Any time your muscles undergo intense exercise, some of the individual fibers called myofibrils are torn. This trauma triggers satellite cells in the surrounding tissue to gather at the site of injury, replacing and repairing damaged myofibrils. During this healing process, the cross-section of the muscle fiber increases as the satellite cells repair the muscle. Muscle cells can also undergo hypertrophy, where individual muscle cells become larger. Exercises like running can spur the growth of muscle cells through hypertrophy, but the noticeable increase in size due to hypertrophy usually occurs after several weeks to a few months of training.
Calves on the Run
Each time you take a step, your foot undergoes plantarflexion, which increases the angle of your foot and leg. In practical terms, this is your step-off during your stride. Two muscles make this happen. The larger muscle, gastrocnemius, extends from the top of your calf, just underneath the back of your knee, down to about the middle of your calf. And the soleus muscle runs underneath your gastrocnemius from the base of your heel to the top of your calf. These two muscles work together during your run, and will get larger over time if you keep pushing them during your routine.
Your gastrocnemius is the more powerful of the two muscles in your calf, and will grow noticeably larger much quicker than the soleus. The gastrocnemius will make up the majority of the bulk in your upper calf. This muscle is made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which make it perfect for things like sprinting and jumping. When you're running, it's used extensively to provide the quick propulsion you need to move quickly. Your soleus is a slow-twitch muscle, ideal for endurance and posture. It will grow with repeated use, but not nearly as large as the gastrocnemius.
Going for Growth
If you're looking to build your calves through running, you'll want to encourage hypertrophy. An interval workout with periods of high-intensity sprinting followed by periods of jogging or light running is a good way to promote the growth of muscle. Resistance running or incline running are also great ways to jump-start your muscle growth. If your calves are relatively thin to begin with, any running routine should increase their size, but the nature of high-intensity workouts is especially effective at signaling the growth of larger, more powerful muscle cells.
The best way to grow your calf muscles with running is to work rest days into your routine. It might seem counter-intuitive, but giving your muscles the time they need to rebuild and recover will increase their size faster than if you used them repeatedly with no rest. When you've finished a particularly grueling run, give yourself a much-needed break for a day or two and stretch and massage your calves. In no time, you'll have the toned and powerful calves you've been looking for.