If there’s one thing runners love doing, it’s running (obviously). And if there’s one thing runners don’t really enjoy, it’s strength and conditioning work. There’s no mystery to it – if you’re already running a lot, making time for more exercise that you don’t enjoy as much is not an appealing proposition – but doing some strength training tailored for runners is vital if you want to improve your running and make yourself more resilient to injury.
Leg exercises like the goblet squat, Bulgarian split squat and single-leg Romanian deadlift are commonly prescribed, but don’t leave calf exercises out of the equation because strong calves are essential to strong running. Every step you take when running puts a significant amount of strain on the calves, and common injuries like achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis are often caused by weak calves that can’t handle that strain. Building up your weekly mileage gradually (a good-quality running training plan will do this for you) and strengthening your calves are your best bets for reducing the risk of suffering these problems.
The calf raise is an excellent (and virtually the only) place to start, and it’s not just runners who should be doing the move. Any keen sportsperson will benefit from stronger calves, and gym-goers will no doubt already know that they are tricky muscles to target, so adding calf raises to your routine is a must.
How To Do Calf Raises
Exercises don’t come much simpler than the calf raise. Stand up straight, then push through the balls of your feet and raise your heel until you are standing on your toes. Then lower slowly back to the start.
For this reason, calf raises are just about the easiest exercise to slip into your day-to-day life. Do them while brushing your teeth, or waiting for the kettle to boil, or standing in an lift.
Calf Raise Variations
Weighted calf raise
It’s a good idea to increase the difficulty of calf raises with weights once you’re well acquainted with the exercise. Holding a dumbbell in each hand while doing raises will help prepare the calf to handle the extra pressure put on it during sports like running.
Raised calf raise
Stand on a step so your heel can drop lower than the rest of your foot at the bottom of the movement. This provides a greater range of motion in your calf during the exercise. You can hold dumbbells to make this variation tougher, but it can be tricky to keep your balance when holding dumbbells that are too heavy.
Bent-knee calf raise
Bending your knees slightly when doing any kind of calf raises switches the workload from the gastrocnemius – the larger calf muscle – to the soleus, which might be smaller but is no less important. Your calf raise routine should include as many bent-knee exercises as straight-knee raises.
Seated calf raise
Many gyms have a seated calf raise machine where you can adjust the weight easily, but you can also do this variation by sitting on a chair with your feet on a raised surface so your heels hang off the back. With the latter you can rest dumbbells on your knees to add resistance to the movement. Seated calf raises are especially good for working the soleus muscles and allow you to add significant weight to the exercise with less risk of losing your balance.
Single-leg calf raise
If you are a keen runner, one thing that won’t have escaped your attention is that you don’t run on two legs at the same time, so it’s a good idea to train your legs individually. You can, and should, try standard calf raises, bent-knee raises, seated raises, or raised raises on one leg, and progress to adding weight to the move.
Supine gym ball calf raise
Adding instability by using a gym ball means your calves are forced to work harder to stabilise your entire body. Rest your head and shoulders on a gym ball, with your knees bent at 90° and your feet flat on the floor. Your body should form a straight line from knees to shoulders. Push up onto your toes and hold for a two-count before lowering.
Single-leg calf jump
Explosive moves like this target your fast-twitch muscle fibres, which have the most potential for growth. Place the ball of your foot on a step and balance on that foot. Use your toes to push off into a jump, landing on the floor, not on the step.
The calf jump was recommended to us as one of the best leg exercises for runners by Chris Betteridge, running coach for virtual running club WeRun. “It’s a great plyometric workout for the calf, achilles and plantar fascia,” says Betteridge, “and amazing for foot and ankle strength.”
With your knees straight but not locked, push off the balls of your feet and your toes to jump straight up, making sure your heels touch the floor when you land. Repeat at pace – Betteridge recommends 180bpm (here’s a metronome on Google set to that tempo) and aim to keep going for two minutes for every mile of the distance you’re training for. Yes, if you’re training for a marathon, that’s 52 minutes of calf jumps. One to work up to.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.