by Diane Spicer
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.
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.
Let's be clear in this discussion of sore calves after a hike:
General definitions to use as a starting point:
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.
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 is a different beast.
It can be described as shooting, stabbing or at a high enough level that it prevents you from your normal routine.
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.
We'll start with simple explanations of your sensation of sore calves, and work our way up to conditions that require medical intervention.
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 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.
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 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.
Keep reading for tips.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read more about hiking muscle and soft tissue problems here.
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.
Get professional advice.
Now let's look at ways you can prevent having sore lower legs 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!
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:
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.
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:
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 well hydrated condition, with excellent footwear, to keep your legs in top condition.
What To Do About Sore Calves After A Hike
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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