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Ask the Trainer: how to prevent sore calves

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Fitness expert Matt Haugen

Walking, running and hiking are excellent forms of exercise.  As weight bearing activities, these workouts help to improve joint health, burn calories, and as part of an overall exercise program, help to improve health and wellness.  Moderate exercise has also been shown to help prevent many forms of disease, including colon cancer.  But sore calves can keep a walker, runner or hiker off their feet.  Sore calves often occur after an increase in exercise intensity, due to a change in elevation on the exercise course or a change in pace.  This Ask the Trainer question comes from a hiker who is training to reach her climbing goals.  Fitness expert Matt Haugen responds with helpful advice for all exercisers.

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Get Your Rear in Gear reader: I am training to climb some big mountains early next year.  In my last two training session I have hiked with a weighted pack and climbed stairs for extended periods of time.  Each time my calf muscles ached for 3 days afterwards.  I’ve been to a couple expeditions carrying a similar heavy load for 5-8hrs a day and was fine. I don’t understand why my calves hurt now, when I’ve never had problems before.  Can you give me some advice?

Matt Haugen: I have used stairs extensively in the past to train athletes for the Pikes Peak Marathon. In some instances, I have had athletes carry medicine balls weighing as much as 12 pounds. It is very common to create a training overload with stair workouts, thus soreness and stiffness are common for 2-5 days after the initial workouts. Stair workouts do cause stress going up and coming down, especially when an athlete is carrying additional weight.

The key to successful training is to gradually and systematically extend workout frequency, duration, intensity and, in this case, overload due to added weight. I would recommend spacing stair workouts 2-3 days apart, during which time you can complete non-impact workouts to help speed the recovery of your legs. When scheduling stair workouts, do your best to alternate short, medium, & long workouts, as well as vary the weight carried, so that your muscles and mind experience varied levels of training overload.

Additional ways to reduce the impact stress with stair workouts include walking (rather than running) the stairs, selecting staircases whose steps are shorter (less impact from an 8 inch vs 12 inch tall step), and to complete some stair workouts without carrying any additional weight.

You can also try using the treadmill (at grades up to 15%), and long hills, for walking, hiking, and running workouts.  In all cases, do your best to simulate the vertical gain, percent grade, and environment that you will encounter during your climbing of BIG mountains.

Matt Haugen is a full-time coach who has trained thousands of athletes since 1980. On the community, high school, collegiate, national, and Olympic levels, he has guided athletes to podium finishes and personal best accomplishments.  Matt holds a B.A. in Psychology, and M.S. Exercise Science/Sport Psychology from Penn State, and Ph.D. studies (A.B.D.) in Kinesiology/Sport Psychology from the U of Minnesota. He currently trains athletes of all levels through Performance Power (P2) based in St. Paul Minnesota.

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