I have scoured the internet, dug through medical archives, trawled ancient libraries, sought world expert opinion* and come up short. Prevention of calf musculature injuries is just not something that has been closely investigated to date. However there is some relevant research which I will combine with clinical experience to come up with a calf injury prevention plan.
Firstly we should talk a little about the anatomy of the calf complex. Most people are well aware of the gastrocnemius, the bulky muscle at the top of the calf made up of two parts. But just as important to know about is the soleus; located underneath the gastrocnemius.
The major difference between the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles is their attachment above and below the knee joint respectively. The implication of the different attachments is that the muscles contribute differently depending on how bent the knee becomes. The more the knee bends, the greater the percentage of work the soleus does instead of the gastrocnemius and vice versa. We can exploit this relationship to allow for more targeted strength of one muscle versus the other. This becomes extremely relevant when we see the comparison of injury rates between the muscles.
Recent MRI findings analysed by Dr Andrew Rotstein (Victoria House Imaging) of calf injuries in the AFL showed that of 63 in season injuries, 30 of these caused missed matches. Of those injuries that caused missed matches, 22 of them involved the soleus (19 were due to the soleus alone). Not only was the soleus more likely to tear, but it was also more likely to make an AFL player miss a game. Clearly we can’t ignore the soleus if we want to prevent calf injuries.
Good examples of soleus strengthening exercises are the seated calf raise or a bent knee calf raise (pictured above). If you are not in a gym with a seated calf raise machine, you can do the same thing at home with some weights resting on the knee (small children are perfect for this if you can keep them still). If you decide to do the standing bent leg calf raise, make sure the knee stays bent to about 90 degrees or more the entire time your heel is lifting up and down.
So start with getting the soleus muscles strong and next time our discussion of calf injury prevention will cover the gastrocnemius.
* Some of these actions may not have technically happened.
Cresswell, A., Lï¿½scher, W., & Thorstensson, A. (1995). Influence of gastrocnemius muscle length on triceps surae torque development and electromyographic activity in man. Exp Brain Res, 105(2). doi:10.1007/bf00240964
Miaki, H., Someya, F., & Tachino, K. (1999). A comparison of electrical activity in the triceps surae at maximum isometric contraction with the knee and ankle at various angles. Eur J Appl Physiol, 80(3), 185-191. doi:10.1007/s004210050580