Got Calf, Achilles or Foot Pain? This May Be Why

ONE OF THE blessings of being a coach is this: If you pay attention, you can see trends before they become trendy.

Sometimes they are positive, like the value of adding cross-training to your routine. But many times they are negative and can force you down detours during training.

Over the past few years, I’ve fielded an unyielding amount of questions about calf and Achilles pain, many of which ultimately ended up being related to transitioning into minimalist shoes. But in the past six months, I’ve found a potential new culprit that still has to do with shoes but nothing to do with minimalist ones.

Let me explain.

Andi’s plantar fasciitis came out of nowhere. After 12-plus years of running sans pain, she’s had nothing but issues with PF and peroneal tendonitis over the past year. She had just moved from Colorado to Virginia Beach, but her running was consistent in that time so that wasn’t the issue. Nor was the transition from a mountainous terrain to the flatlands; she’s wisely transitioned slowly.

After a series of questions, I asked about her shoes. She’s worn the same mild stability shoes for years, so at first I thought, That isn’t it. But after looking into the recent updates in her shoe model, I found that the drop in the shoe–the difference between heel and midfoot height–in her go-to shoes had been lowered 2 mm down to 8 mm. Now that may not seem like much, but it’s enough to be a cause of all kinds of issues in your calves and Achilles, which can lead to problems with your feet.

This was also the case for Frank, who was healthy and successfully training for a half marathon until three weeks in his new go-to running shoes led to Achilles pain in both legs and knocked him out of his race.

Deborah was within weeks of her marathon when she was also hit with calf pain so severe she wasn’t able to run for weeks. This came after two weeks of running in her new go-to running shoes. In this case, it wasn’t just the drop. The shoe’s support provided less stability.

In an effort to fuel the popularity of low profile shoes, some companies are lowering the drop in many running shoes. The problem is there is no disclosure to the runner, so when we purchase our go-to running shoes, we might actually be running in a different shoe. Not good.

If you’re like many runners, you’ve been putting in the miles with a shoe drop that ranges from 10-12 mm on average. As the drop is lowered, your running stride needs to shift to a midfoot landing to counter the lack of cushion and transfer from heel to toe. It’s not to say that lower drop shoes are bad–they aren’t for some runners–but it does require time to adapt to the differences in impact, neuromuscular patterns, and muscular strength and mobility. Simply put, it takes time to learn how to run this way and for your body to adapt to the new stress.

So if you’ve got mystery calf, Achilles, or foot issues that came out of nowhere, it just may be your favorite shoes.

But what if you can’t part with your favorite kicks? (I don’t blame you.) Head to the corner store and snag heel inserts to account for the lost drop or cut an old shoe insert in half and slide it under you new shoe’s insert, advises RW Gear Guy Warren Greene.

You can also treat them like a new model and a more minimal-esque shoe and break them, and your body, in slowly over time. This is very important for two reasons. One, the shoe, although similar, will wear differently so your body will need time to adapt just like any new shoe you’d run in. And two, the lower drop in the shoe results in a lengthening of the calf muscle on impact, and it encourages a landing that is more midfoot versus your heel. Those two changes make a significant difference on your body, especially if you’re a woman who also loves heels and has tight, short calves.

One way you can break them in is to start with baby steps and test the waters. Although this can be try your patience, it can alleviate pain and injury down the road.

  • Start slowly (really slowly). If you run on a treadmill, do your workout and finish the final 5 minutes in the new shoes.
  • If you run outdoors, you can do your warm up (walking, easy running) for the first 5 minutes in your new shoes, then switch to your old shoes and finish the run.
  • Repeat this twice during the week with time and be mindful of any calf, Achilles, or foot tightness or pain you feel along the way. If you have it while doing this slow progression, it can mean the shoe is not for you or that you need to take it even slower.
  • If all feels well after the first week of two modified runs (5 minutes each with the new kicks), then progress to 10 minutes on the same schedule.
  • Continue to take it week by week tuning into your body for signs along the way. This is what it takes to transition to a lower shoe, folks. It takes time.

From there, it’s up to us to become more familiar with our personal drop and tune in to how our body responds to the new models. And don’t forget to check the labeling on your shoes when you buy a new pair!


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