Let’s firstly look at the role of stretching. Although the gastrocnemius is often included in the studies looking at the effectiveness of stretching, it is one of a few muscles regularly tested. Hence the information that follows is more general and can be applied to any lower limb muscle.
Purely in terms of injury prevention, there is weak evidence to support the practice of stretching. The most recent comprehensive review of stretching found three articles that showed no difference in injury rates between the stretching and non-stretching group. The review also found four articles which showed some reduction in injury rates with stretching. However, these studies included a warm up (sometimes very extensive) in addition to the stretching. Combining stretching and warm up makes it hard to determine if the stretching alone was truly having any effect. In addition, one of these four studies showed very good results for stretching in sailors. Amazing news for sailors but the results are difficult to apply to everyone doing running sports.
Not only is the evidence for stretching a little shaky, it has been shown many times in the literature that static stretching (holding still for a period of time) reduces the muscles ability to generate power and decreases sprint performance for a short period afterwards. These negatives nonetheless can be mitigated by doing dynamic stretching (continuous movement that repeatedly puts the muscles into stretch range) and doing a warm up.
Taking into account the combination of limited evidence suggesting positive results and some negative effects of static stretching (which is by far the most commonly practiced form of stretching) I rarely recommend stretching to clients. I much prefer my clients spend their time doing some self-massage by getting their shin up on a couch/bed and using the heel of your hand to push into the calf. Spending 5 minutes being your own massage therapist before you head out to run will be time much more valuably spent than stretching for injury prevention.
As for most parts of the body, strength is the real key to avoiding injury. Rod Whiteley and his colleagues at Aspetar looked at the average amount of straight leg calf raises a person could do. The average number of raises was 23 from a group of 156 subjects (312 calves) who ranged in age from 18 – 70 years old. Importantly, the test was done with the front half of the foot on a step so that the heel could drop and rise to its full extent. Try this test at home and if you find you are off the pace then you at least have a target number you can build towards.
Picture: Calf raises using a Smith Machine
Further to working on the endurance of that gastrocnemius by doing a high number of repetitions per set, I also recommend spending time working on building strength. This is achieved by lifting heavier weights fewer times. For the gastrocnemius this is difficult to do without the aid of a smith rack in a gym, however if you do have access then add smith rack calf raises to your routine (see picture above for single leg, but double leg is also fine). Clients will be given the advice to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions and set the weight at a level that makes the 5th repetition quite difficult to achieve. It has been shown that concurrently training for strength and endurance increases performance in elite level runners, and if it can improve them, it should be able to improve the rest of us!
To summarise: guard the gastrocnemius by building up to at least 23 repetitions of single leg calf raises, add some heavy strength work if you are in a gym, and perhaps spend your time doing self-massage rather than stretching prior to your run. I hope that keeps your baby cow’s in great shape!
McHugh, M., & Cosgrave, C. (2009). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine & Science In Sports. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01058.x
NELSON, A., KOKKONEN, J., & ARNALL, D. (2005). ACUTE MUSCLE STRETCHING INHIBITS MUSCLE STRENGTH ENDURANCE PERFORMANCE. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 19(2), 338-343. http://dx.doi.org/10.1519/00124278-200505000-00017
Sedano, S., Marín, P., Cuadrado, G., & Redondo, J. (2013). Concurrent Training in Elite Male Runners.Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 27(9), 2433-2443. http://dx.doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318280cc26