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Sore Calves From Hiking?
Best Tips To Try

By Diane Spicer

Sore calves after a hike? Prevent and deal with the problem with these tips. #sorecalves #hikingsoreness #soreafterhike #musclesoreness #backpackingsoreness #hikingforher

If you experience sore calves after a hike, did you know there are many things you can do to prevent or minimize the discomfort? 

Let's get right into explaining why your legs may be sore, and then cover some tips you can use today.

  • No medical advice is being given, just trail tested tips.
  • Always make your own health care decisions.

Pain versus soreness in your calves

If you're a beginner hiker, you might be surprised shocked at the amount of soreness you'll feel in your legs after your first few hikes.

Even veteran hikers sometimes wake up the next day and ask "What the heck happened??" as they hobble around with sore calves.

Let's be clear in this discussion of sore calves after a hike:

  • You have full responsibility for deciding if what you are feeling is within normal limits after your hike, or if it is cause for enough concern that you take yourself to a doctor's office.

General definitions to use as a starting point:

Sore muscles after a hike

Hiking soreness in your legs may feel like a dull ache when you move your muscles. 

You might have to move a bit more slowly through your daily routine because each step makes you well aware of your soreness.

  • You'll notice the soreness more when you climb stairs, squat down to pick something up, or get in and out of a car.

The soreness fades in a few days, gradually improving with each passing 24 hours, and can be helped along with the tips which follow.

Pain after hiking

Pain is a different beast altogether.

It can be described as shooting, stabbing, or at a high enough level that it prevents you from your normal routine.

In other words, you can't work around it or ignore it.

It should be looked at by trained eyes immediately, to rule out serious injury or medical conditions.

This is especially true if the pain is accompanied by swelling, numbness, weakness or a change in the temperature and/or color of your legs.

Do not ignore this level of pain and dysfunction.

Now that we've defined muscle soreness, let's take a look at which particular type of soreness you may be experiencing.

What's causing your sore calves?

We'll start with simple explanations of your sensation of sore calves, and work our way up to conditions that require medical intervention.

Soreness the day after a hike
from overexertion

Your body is not shy about giving you certain types of feedback. 

But sometimes the message doesn't come until the next day.

Painful muscles in both of your lower legs might be a postcard telling you that your hike was too much for your current fitness level.

  • The "too much, too soon" syndrome of overdoing things is a common problem with beginner hikers, resulting in shockingly sore calves.

The fancy term for this is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), if fancy language makes you feel any better ;)

And if you want more fancy words, the main muscles that are shouting at you are the gastrocnemius and soleus on the backs of your lower legs (calves). 

Your Achilles tendon comes into play here, anchoring the muscle fibers to your big heel bone. It may feel sore and stretched, too.

It will be a few days of hobbling around, bemoaning your fate (sometimes quite loudly), and then you should be back to normal - a bit older but a lot wiser.

Weekend warrior soreness

You're active, fit and love long hikes.

Trouble is, you can only hit the trail hard once per week.

And "hard" leads to muscle soreness if you tackled a trail with double digit mileage, giant elevation gain/loss, a fast pace and a fully loaded backpack.

Or maybe you squeezed in a weekend (2 night, 3 day) backpacking trip, knowing the whole while that the clock was ticking toward Monday morning, so you needed to hoof it back to the trailhead ASAP.

So while your calf muscles are plenty strong enough for a hike, you may not be as flexible as you think, which can lead to shortened muscles and thus to soreness.

  • If you wear shoes with heels of any height off the trail, this can contribute to the problem of tight muscles.
  • If you neglect your hydration levels during and afterwards, muscle fibers can get stuck together as adhesions, not contract efficiently, and give you soreness.

Keep reading for tips.


Multi day hiking trips

You may be a conditioned day hiker, but perhaps you're doing one of your first backpacking trips.

Or you just got back from a longer trip than usual, one that involved more gear and an ambitious daily itinerary for mileage and destinations.

  • Because you're not getting any younger, right?

But your legs are not used to a heavier pack, carried farther and longer than usual, at a brisk pace.

In other words, an increase in intensity and duration are working against you to set you up for leg soreness.

Another factor: consistent elevation gain and loss, day after day, when you're the proud owner of sea level legs.

Ah, I feel for you, truly I do.

This is part of the learning curve as a seasoned backpacker: how far and how fast to push without completely hobbling yourself for several days.

  • Be humble, be honest with yourself - and be able to walk normally when you get home with the tips on this page!

Pre-existing physical conditions

Are you a hiker with a diagnosed medical condition, prior injuries, recent surgery, dietary issues or a lot of candles on your birthday cake?

These links take you to some specific hiking tips, but keep reading if you're struggling with sore calves after a hike.

Muscle and soft tissue injuries

There is a difference between sore muscles and outright pain, as noted above.

You're going to have to assess whether this is "normal" soreness, and consult a health care provider if you judge it to be extreme or it's lasting too long.

Some of the soft tissue injuries a hiker can experience can be cleared up quickly if they are identified correctly and the proper self care is applied.

Examples of when things might have gotten out of hand:

It's possible that you've injured your Achilles tendon, which is attached to a calf muscles and anchored to your heel bone. It's inflamed and sore: Achilles tendinitis.

  • You could have "pulled" a calf muscle.

Shin splints are painful spots on the front of the calves, the area with very little muscle tissue where it hurts like heck if you get kicked.

  • Don't ignore them!

Read more about hiking muscle and soft tissue problems here.

When sore calves
don't feel better with time

If your pain and stiffness is not resolved within a few days to a week, you might have an underlying condition that needs attention.

It's also possible that you've injured yourself and are heading into the chronic phase of healing.

  • Don't wish away the pain and stall your diagnosis.
  • Waiting "a little longer" for the pain to fade can work against you.
  • So can masking the pain with anti inflammatory medications.

Get professional advice.

Now let's look at ways you can prevent having sore lower legs as a hiker.

Tips to prevent sore calf muscles
as a hiker

You're going to groan at these common sense tips, but I'm going to urge you to do them on a regular basis so you won't be groaning in pain after a hike.

Sometimes it really is this simple!

Before you hit the trail

  • If you're a beginner hiker, start with small goals of mileage and elevation gain and work up to strenuous hiking.
  • Learn how to advocate for yourself when other people want to tackle a hike that you know is beyond your current ability.
  • Improve your calf muscle strength by taking the stairs rather than the elevator, parking far from the front door, and using a standing work station at every opportunity.
  • If your schedule permits only one hike per week, stay active on the other days to tone your calves with cross training and vigorous daily walks.
  • Walk around barefoot whenever possible, allowing your calf muscles the freedom to lengthen and strengthen. Helps harden up your feet, too.
  • Incorporate "step ups" into your day. Do exactly what it says: step up and down from a step (stair, stool) in your home as part of your fitness routine. This mimics what your legs do for you during a hike, conditioning them and keeping them strong.

At the trailhead & during the hike:
ways to prevent sore calves

  • Warm up your leg muscles at the trailhead with simple stretches.
  • Don't hike in shoddy or worn out trail footwear, because it forces your muscles into compromising positions to keep you upright and stable. Put good choices on your feet with these tips.
  • Pay attention to your hiking pace, and when you begin to receive feedback from your aching calves, slow down.
  • Take a rest break to sip water and eat a nutritious snack to refuel your muscles; use intervals which make sense for the trail you're on.
  • If stopping for water is a deal breaker for you, wear a hydration backpack for continuous access to water.
  • Prop up your lower legs at your lunch spot, allowing blood to drain away to the heart and oxygenated blood to reach your calf muscles.
  • Pull on your rain pants to keep your lower body warmed up before you feel too cold, thus avoiding tight leg muscles.
  • Know you always run a little cold? Wear leggings like these under your outer layer. Read my prAna leggings review, too.
  • Hiking gaiters will keep your calves warmer when you're hiking on snow or through cold wet conditions.
  • Wearing compression socks can aid with blood flow to your lower legs and head off soreness.
Hiker's calf wearing a green hiking sockYour choice of hiking socks matters!

After your hike

  • Stretch your leg muscles after every hike as soon as your boots or trail shoes come off. Nothing fancy, just some toe touches, heel lifts, and the other stretches shared above.
  • Use a foam roller like this one to work out sore spots.
  • Make time to replace the water you lost along the trail (perspiration, urination, respiration, defecation, maybe a few tears on the uphill sections).
  • Eat like the athlete you are to replenish the nutrients it cost you to hike. Hiking nutrition tips here.

General tips for dealing with 
sore muscles after a hike

As part of your post-hike recovery strategy, you can ease the soreness in your body with some anti inflammatory actions, covered here.

You can also acknowledge that it will hurt short term in order to help long term when you do these free and low cost things:

  • Take your first tentative steps of the day and walk around slowly. Then tippy toe around, alternating with heel walking, to get your muscles warmed up. This will begin to banish the stiffness that comes along with soreness.
  • Once your muscles are warmed up a bit, stretch your calf muscles with yoga poses like Downward Facing Dog and Standing Forward Bend, using these tips.
  • Climb into a warm Epsom salt bath and do some toe crunches; elevate one heel at a time on the side of the tub as you point your toes; then allow the salts to work their magic.

If you're really into the long term idea of using gentle yoga poses to prevent sore calves and tired legs, here's a great video to use.

Sore calves: step up a level

Ouch, a bad sore calves pun, sorry.

Try these approaches to banish sore calves.

They cost a bit of money and time but can make your calves feel great afterwards:

  • Sports massage with myofascial work, focused on your legs
  • This trigger point release stick applied to the most sore points every time you work out or hike
  • Self administered trigger point myofascial release, this time on your feet, using this tool

The good news about hiking soreness
and your sore calves in particular

Yes, there really is good news! Here it is:

The more you hike, the less sore you can expect to be the next day.

A conditioned set of hiking muscles will accept the challenge of mileage, elevation gain, a fast pace and long days on the trail with a minimum of soreness.

Getting to that level of conditioning?

Easier said than done.

Use these tips to get ready to leave sore calves behind:

But the very best idea?

Hike, walk, bike, dance, swim as much as you can, year round, in a healthy and well hydrated condition, with excellent footwear, to keep your legs in top condition.

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What To Do About Sore Calves After A Hike