While incredibly uncomfortable, having sore calves after a hard hike is completely normal. Luckily, even after a hike that can be tough on your calves, there are several things you can do to alleviate the pain. By stretching, icing, and exercising your legs, you can get back on the trail more quickly.
If you’ve just finished a long hike with advanced terrain, one of the best ways to ease sore calf muscles is to take a break from walking around and sitting for extended periods of time. In addition to giving your sore calves a chance to recover, this can reduce the pain you’re experiencing.
What Causes Tight Calves While Hiking or Exercising
Your leg muscles will become sore anytime that they’re put under more stress than usual. If you’re hiking for long periods of time over rough terrain, your calves will naturally exert more effort than they’re used to. You’ll enjoy increased blood flow and leg oxygenation during the hike itself, but once you stop and rest, there could be a side effect that results in sore muscles.
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Lactic Acid Build Up in Calves while Hiking
Most people don’t know about the existence of lactic acid. It’s a type of chemical that is produced when your body breaks down glucose for energy and creates a byproduct called pyruvic acid, which then reacts with water to create lactic acid.
When you’re at rest, lactic acids are generally removed from your body through respiration and circulation. However, if you don’t give your body a chance to remove the chemicals, they can build up in different parts of your body.
If you’ve ever felt sore calves after hiking or exercising, it may be because of an accumulation of this substance. Lactate builds up when there isn’t enough oxygen available to fuel the muscles and produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which provides energy for movement. This build-up can lead to cramping, pain, and discomfort during exercise. Fortunately though, if you are able to properly cool down and stretch out your calves, you can ease the pain of a buildup in lactic acid.
Calf Pain When Hiking Uphill
You might experience more calf pain while hiking uphill, this is because your feet and ankles often have a wider range of motion on steep terrain. This will cause your calves and legs to work significantly harder to propel your body upward and forward and become more fatigued than if they were in a flat area or traveling downhill.
To help relieve calf tightness and pain while hiking uphill, try walking in a zig-zag across the trail, creating tiny switchbacks for yourself instead of trying to ascend an incline head-on. Walk uphill as slow as you need to and take lots of breaks to give your muscles a chance to rest and recoup some oxygen.
Be sure to wear proper-fitting hiking shoes with good quality insoles to give your feet, ankles, and calves the support they need.
How do you treat sore calves?
Thankfully, that pain doesn’t have to last for long! There are ways to naturally treat sore muscles and relieve calf pain after a hiking trip. While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best things that you can do after a long hike is rest.
By limiting your activity that day, you allow your calves to recover from the pounding they took on the trail. If possible, skip the next morning’s workout and opt for an afternoon or evening walk instead. In addition to reducing muscle soreness, this can also give your body more time to repair any micro-tears in your calves that can lead to injury if you push yourself too hard.
To make sure that you’re not keeping the soreness in your calves from healing, try to avoid walking on cement or other hard, unforgiving surfaces as much as possible.
Try soaking your calves and feet in a cold stream at the end of your hike or taking an ice bath when you get home from the trail to help reduce swelling in your legs and ensure that the break you’re about to take actually makes a difference.
Another thing that you can do is alternate between hot and cold soaks, or hot and cold packs if that is more practical.
Stretching For Sore Calves
Gently stretching your calves right after your hike, or at least before you go to sleep, is key. Most people picture the gastrocnemius muscle when they think of their calves, but the soleus muscle plays just as much of an important role in our posture and movement. Just something to keep in mind as your stretching, foam rolling, or massaging your legs after a hike, be sure to give attention to both major calf muscles, not just the gastrocnemius.
Here are some of the best stretches you can do after a hike, they may even prevent tightness and cramping through the night.
Gastrocnemius stretch (calf wall stretch with knee straight)
Stand a few inches away from a wall or tree and place your elbows on the wall at about eye level for support. Then step your right foot back about a foot and straighten your knee, keeping your heel on the ground. Move your right foot forward a little bit if your heel can’t touch the ground. Gently sink down and slightly forward into your hips to feel the stretch in your calf.
Hold for 15-25 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Repeat the whole process 2-3 times for the most benefit.
Soleus muscle stretch (calf wall stretch with knees bent)
Get in the same position, facing a wall with one foot forward and one foot back, just like the previous stretch. However, this time instead of straightening the back leg and knee, we are going to bend both knees while keeping the heels on the floor. Then bring the hips and chest forward, towards the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg.
Hold for 15-25 seconds and repeat on the other side. Then repeat the whole process 2-3 times.
Heel drop stretch
Stand on the edge of a step with your heel(s) hanging off the edge, holding on to a handrail, chair, counter or something else for balance. Slowly sink your heels downward while keeping your knees straight, and lean slightly forward until you feel a stretch.
Hold for 15-25 seconds and repeat on the other side. Then repeat the whole process 2-3 times.
For a more intense stretch, lift one leg and put all of your weight on one foot at a time. Or for a more gentle stretch, stand on both feet and stretch both calves at once.
Soleus Heel Drop Stretch
This is very similar to the previous heel drop stretch, with the same setup. Except for this time, we’re going to bend our knees while our heel(s) are hanging off the edge of a step, to more closely target our soleus calf muscle.
Again, hold for 15-25 seconds and repeat on the other side. Then repeat the whole process 2-3 times.
Downward dog for an even deeper stretch
If you do or ever have done yoga, downward dog is another excellent stretch not only for the calf muscles but the feet, hamstrings, hips, glutes, and lower back.
Starting in a table pose, tuck your toes under and lift your hips to the sky while creating a straight line along your back, shoulders, and arms. If the backs of your legs are too tight to flatten your heels to the ground, that’s okay! Gently bend your knees and slowly extend your legs until your feel a comfortable stretch. Keep practicing over several days or weeks until you can keep your feet flat on the ground.
None of these stretches should create more pain for you, if you start to feel pain, ease up until you feel a relieving stretch.
Foam Rolling for Sore Calves
A foam roller is a great, affordable tool to keep at home or in your car for quick targeted muscle release and relaxation. I’d venture to bet that most of us don’t have a massage therapist on-call to help us out after each and every hike, so a foam roller is the next best thing.
Foam rolling exercise for the calves #1
Foam rolling exercise for the calves #2
Foam rolling exercise for the calves #3
If your calves are particularly sensitive after hiking, it could be due to an injury. If you experience extreme calf pain that seems to worsen the following day or affect your ability to walk or complete daily tasks, make sure to visit your doctor. He or she will be able to help determine if there’s a medical issue that needs to be addressed.
Preventing Sore Calves In The Future
The easiest way to deal with sore calf muscles is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. To do this, it’s important that you stretch before exercising or hiking.
Stretching Your Calves Before Hiking
Flex your calves up and down, side to side, while sitting in a chair. Do this every day before you go on an extended hike or exercise session.
You can further prevent sore calves when hiking by using a pair of hiking poles. Trekking poles can relieve some of the pressure from your calves and take some of the weight off your knees and helping your body to move more efficiently as a whole.
Stretching and foam rolling your calf muscles after a difficult hike or backpacking trip can also greatly speed up recovery time and ease soreness.
I hope you found this article about hiking helpful! It’s important to remember how your muscles feel when you’re done for the day and know what steps to take in order to relax them. Make it easy on yourself and take care of those tired calves by following the advice we’ve given here. You deserve it after such an accomplishment!
For more hiking and backpacking tips, check out:
- 10 Essential Backpacking Skills Every Hiker Needs To Know
- How To Make Backpacking In The Rain Suck A Little Less
- Complete Guide To Hiking Hydration
- Prevent Blisters With These Tips
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.