0800 040 7526
The calf muscle, on the back of the lower leg, is actually made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius is the larger muscle of the calf, forming the bulge visible beneath the skin. The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius muscle.
The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles taper and merge at the base of the calf muscle. Tough connective tissue at the bottom of the calf muscle merges with the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon then inserts into the heel bone (calcaneus).
The calf is responsible for pushing down (plantarflexion is the technical term) the toes, so it works when we push off in walking, running, going up stairs or reaching up on tip toes to grab something from a shelf.
The transition between muscle and tendon is known as the musculo tendinous junction or MTJ.
As the calf is the lowest large muscle that we have, it has to push all of your weight as it extends the ankle joint and pushes you off; in fact in running and jumping the forces are a large multiple of your body weight.
This is why some of the most common injuries that we see in personal training happen to the calf and in particular the MTJ. Although complete tears are rare, little tears or adhesions can build up over time without you knowing it, eventually leading to a strain or partial tear.
So how do we prevent and treat calf injuries?
1 – Wear proper trainers specific to your training. Proper trainers like the ever popular Asics gel kayano will provide support and stability for your foot, helping your calf to do its job with less strain.
2 – Warm up properly. One of the most overlooked aspects of fitness, a full warm up with proper structure is vital. All too often clients do just a 2 or 3 minute warm up on their own then belt off into a full session. 10 minutes should be your target, starting gradually and only getting into higher intensity jumping or running after 5. Muscles are like lots of tiny rubber bands all woven together. They are hugely more elastic when hot.
3 – Increase training gradually. The general rule of thumb is to increase the volume of training that you are doing by 10% a week. So build it up gradually and don’t go from zero to hero too fast.
4 – Get a massage. Unless you are under 20 your muscles will have started to lose some of their elasticity. Having a sports therapy massage will really help ease tight muscle fibers and remove any potentially dangerous adhesions or small tears that can eventually lead to bigger injuries.
5 – Be aware when running uphill. It can be easy to push off hard running uphill. Try to lift the leg from the hip as well as pushing off hard from the toes. This will help to spread the load more evenly.
6 – Strengthen strengthen strengthen. Strong loose calves are unlikely to be injured. Specific exercises like calf raises are great but if you don’t have time for these you can include calf strengthening in squats and lunges. So try some squats that push up from the toes at the top of the movement.
Treatment of calf injuries
In the initial inflammatory phase (0-48 hours) RICED is the protocol. Rest, ice, compression, elevation, drugs (like ibuprofen).
In the remodelling phase (48 hours to 2 days) you should start gentle movement with light loading only (using a band around the toes as you push that away with straight legs on the floor for example). This will start to get any damaged fibers back in alignment.
In the chronic phase (21 days to 6 weeks) you should start to introduce more weight bearing exercises as described in point 6 above.
Calf injuries are quite common, but can easily be prevented and treated. So remember that the benefits of being fit, healthy and strong are well worth the odd injury here and there. Only sporty people get sports injuries
Just walking for half an hour a day will halve heart disease chances. Further to the large body of evidence that walking is great for you, a new 6 year study has shown that even just half an hour’s walking every day can cut the risk of a fatal heart attack by half. The study also found that walking was just as effective as running in reducing high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and fighting heart disease. Previous research has also shown that the simple activity can also protect against type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Type 2 diabetes affects 2.7 million people in the UK. The risk of this can be slashed by up to 30% by walking for only 30 mins daily according to data from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study.
Another 12 year study by Dr David Hupin, physician in the Department of Clinical and Exercise Physiology, University Hospital of Saint-Etienne, France, showed that walking for even 15 minutes a day was “protective even if you have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol”.
Other recently published studies have shown how walking can precent many of the negative side-effects of ageing. Researchers at Boston University found that walking 6,000 steps or 3 miles a day could improve knee arthritis by helping to build muscle strength and flexibility and also reduce arthritic pain.
Only 25 mins of brisk walking a day could add up to 7 years to your life experts claimed recently. Also when you exercise moderately you reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack when you are in your fifties and sixties by 50%.
Cycling in middle age can reduce diabetes chances by 20%, shows a new study. Those who started cycling regularly in their 50s and 60s had a lower risk than non cyclists and this risk decreased even further the more they cycled each week.
Martin Rasmussun from The University of Southern Denmark, who published the study, said that
“even when entering elderly age, it is not too late to take up cycling to lower one’s risk of chronic disease”.
Published in the online medical journal Plos, the study followed over 24,000 Danish men and 27,000 Danish women aged between 50 and 63 who did not suffer from diabetes or any other chronic disease. The subjects were then reassessed five years on when some 6,779 had ben diagnosed with diabetes. The study discovered that in the group who did no cycling there were 2,510 cases of type 2 diabetes, whereas in the cycling group only 703 were diagnosed. Those who cycled the most (only 5 hours a week!) also weighed less, had smaller waists, drank less and tended to have better diets. This may have also had an effect in the reduction of those diagnosed with adult onset type 2 diabetes, which is closely linked to poor nutrition, and in particular excessive consumption of processed carbohydrates and sugars. The healthier cycling group also drank more coffee, most likely the result of mid-cycle social coffee stops!
So to reduce diabetes chances in middle age – get cycling!
It’s a long running debate (excuse the pun), and one which can often come down to personal preference, but who’s the winner in the running outside vs treadmill running contest?
The first thing to consider is energy; or rather, which one requires more and so will get you fitter more quickly? In the running outside vs treadmill running debate the outdoors running camp claim that running outside burns more energy. One of the main factors here is wind resistance – which you don’t get in the gym. So you’d think that running outdoors would be the winner. But in a study by Exeter University, runners were made to run along a road while their energy expenditure was measured. The same volunteers were then made to run on a treadmill, again with energy output being measured, but at varying levels of incline. The study found that by using the incline, treadmill running could be made as strenuous as the street/track variety. A 1-2% gradient was enough to nullify the difference.
Secondly, speed is also a factor. Those running on a treadmill tend to overestimate the speed at which they are going. A Singapore study asked candidates to run outdoors at a particular speed and then match that pace on a treadmill. When they tried this the study showed that even though they thought they had matched the speed on the treadmill, they were actually going markedly slower. The scientists behind the study concluded that on the treadmill, runners lacked visual clues they would have got outdoors that helped them to judge speed.
Safety is also a consideration. Running outdoors can be hazardous due to traffic, other runners, pedestrians and other hazards. However, running on a treadmill also has safety issues. People often nudge the front of the treadmill, especially when coming under physical pressure, slips and falls see runners “spat out the back” as the treadmill shoots them off backwards.
Proprioception – running on a treadmill is very repetitive. This means that the same pressures and same impacts are exerted with every step. This has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it means that repetitive strain injuries are much more common on a treadmill. Secondly, it does little to improve co-ordination and communication between the brain and limbs. The variation of outdoors running, from incline to surface to direction change means that these repetitive strain injuries are less likely; it also improves co-ordination more.
Measurability – the treadmill is precisely measurable. You know exactly how you did from one run to the next as speed, incline, pace and time are all measured accurately. However, with the onset of affordable gps tracking systems and fitness watches, measuring an outdoors run has never been easier.
Well being – it seems fairly obvious that running outdoors will produce greater feelings of well-being and more endorphins. The increased physical challenge produces the latter; variety, greater possibilities for teaming up with other runners and proximity to nature helping the former. Scientists from the same team at Exeter University tried to properly evaluate the evidence and running outdoors was the clear winner.
So which one is better? Most of the evidence points to running outdoors. But the key factor to all exercise should be achievability and enjoyment. If you like to go to the gym and use a treadmill, then go for it. If you like running outdoors better, then stick to that. Whatever makes you more likely to exercise is the real winner! Perhaps a combination off the two, (particularly the treadmill in winter darkness) would be a good option.
How to avoid blisters? It’s easy and cheap. Blisters can be very frustrating. Your body is ready to train hard, you’re all set mentally, but your heel blisters mean that its just to painful to do anything. There are lots of different blister remedies in the market, quite often these are costly too, certainly in the long term.
But a study in the US has found that the most effective way to treat blisters in with simple surgical tape, at around 60p a roll. Just apply the tape to the parts of the feet (or hands) that are affected and off you go.
Grant Lipman, MD, an emergency medicine physician, was a doctor for endurance athletes who were running 25 to 50 miles a day in various parts of the world, from the US to Antarctica to Chile.
Despite the harsh conditions and extreme exercise, the most common complaint that Lipman heard from the athletes was about the pain and debilitation caused by foot.
“What I kept hearing was, ‘Doctor, I’d be doing so well, if only for my feet,’” said Lipman, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine. “Their feet were getting decimated.”
“People have been doing studies on blister prevention for 30 or 40 years and never found anything easy that works,” said Lipman, who is the lead author of the study. “I wanted to look at this critically,” said the doctor.
For the study, 128 ultra marathon runners had tape applied to just one foot, with no tape applied to the other, before taking part in a 155 mile running event. By the end of the race, only 30 of the taped feet were blistered, compared with 81 for the group with no tape applied. The study found that not only is surgical tape a great way to avoid blisters, it’s also effective for treating existing blisters too.
You may have seen some funny looking tubes lying around in the gym. Some may have grooves and lumps on, some may be smooth, but they are all foam rollers. A foam roller is basically a type of massage tool that you use with your own force and/or bodyweight to massage and “roll” tight parts of your body. A bit like a rolling pin and some stale dough (for stale dough, read tight bands and lumps of muscle), a foam roller will increase blood flow and circulation, as well as help your body breakdown scar tissue and adhesions in the muscles and connective tissue – those nasty knots that can limit your range of motion and lead to repetitive strain injuries. But how to use a foam roller?
Foam rollers have several advantages over traditional sports therapy methods and physiotherapy. It’s cheaper – you do it yourself; you can direct the point of massage with more accuracy as you are both the practitioner and the patient; it’s cost, time and space efficient; it will help to ease knots and tight bands or muscles. It can be (very!) painful, but that just means that you are doing it correctly.
Whatever muscle groups you’re working, don’t forget:
A lot of tension in these muscles can lead imbalances around the hip and knee, leaving you at risk of injury. The TFL, if overly tight, puts excessive strain on the ITB (see below) and can cause a knock-on knee problem.
How to do it:
The roller is a great way to work a tight IT band, which is really hard to stretch on your own and usually causes the common runner’s problem ITB syndrome, where the ITB rubs on the lower knee joint in running and other activities.
How to do it:
Excessive tension and knots in the quads can lead to pain at the back of the knee and can have a surprising effect on the lower back. The quads are often overused when your glutes and hip muscles aren’t working properly.
How to do it:
Place your elbows on the ground underneath your shoulders and roll the whole body of the muscle slowly.
Excessive tension in the calf can cause pain further up the around the knee, but can also lead to injuries and tears of the achilles and MTJ (muscle-tendinous-junction) where the calf joins the achillies tendon.
How to do it:
Have fun (!) now that you know how to use a foam roller!
The benefits of squats – some might promote the benefits of swimming; others might be big running fans. Then there are those that do lots of sit-ups every day. All of these activities are good for us, but there’s one exercise that’s better than them all – squats. Here are some of the benefits of squats.
You can do them anywhere. You don’t need a gym, or expensive equipment. You don’t even need shoes. You can do squats anywhere.
There are lots of different kinds. Jumping squats will add some cardio to your session. Really slow squats will be really safe and difficult. Holding wall squats are great for skiing. Squats are versatile and can incorporate want different aspects of fitness, from cardio to strength to flexibility.
Further reading on the benefits of squats can be found here – and also why squatting to full depth is important.
One of the biggest myths in fitness is that you can spot tone. This means that you can exercise a particular muscle or area and then lose fat and tone up in that one specific place. Thus, if you adhere to this “spot tone” theory, lots of sit ups or crunches will give you a flat tummy. It is, however, a myth. It can’t be done. Sorry. Sit ups will NOT give you a flat tummy
1 – The body works as a whole system. When we lose fat, we lose it from all over, not any one particular place. “But when I lose weight, it comes first from my face and chest” many women will say. This will appear to be the case, but the less fat you have in a given area, the more quickly it will appear to slim down when you lose weight. As a mechanism, we store more fat around the midriff, bottom and thighs. Less on the face, arms and chest. So as you lose weight, it will indeed appear to come first and fastest from these latter areas, but that’s simply because there is less fat there in the first place.
The body will lose fat from everywhere.
2 – Bigger muscles are more important than smaller ones for fat loss. By doing sit ups we can tone the abdominal wall. But, if we are consuming more energy than we expend, we will still be increasing the size of the “fat suit” that covers up that tummy. So despite any toning from the sit ups, they will still be hidden under a layer of fat. To reveal the abs we must instead focus on removing this “fat suit”. We all have a six pack. That’s the way our abs are shaped. We must all have abs, or we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. But only through loss of fat will they be revealed. To reveal them, we must expend more than we take in. Exercise-wise, the best way to expend the most calories is to work the biggest muscle groups. The bigger the muscle exercised, the more energy it will need every day.The abdominal wall is a relatively small fascia of muscle. Working it won’t burn that much energy. So, rather than endless crunches, we need to work the large muscle groups like the legs, chest, back and shoulders. So pull ups, push ups, squats and shoulder presses will do much more to reveal and flatten the tummy than sit-ups. With correct nutrition – see below!
3 – Wrong rep range. So, you’re doing all the right exercises as above. When you remove the fat suit you would like to have nice ridged abs under there. So you do endless sit ups. These will help to make the tummy muscles good at endurance, but not make them bigger. To make them bigger you need to do less reps at a greater level of difficulty. Ideally this is 2-5 sets of abdominal exercises where you fail (can’t do any more) at 10 reps. The same goes for the compound legs, back, chest and shoulder exercises mentioned above. The larger and more toned they are, the more lean muscle mass you have. Like a bigger engine in a car, these large muscles will demand more energy all day, every day. Smaller muscles (like biceps and abs), not so much.
4 – Nutrition, nutrition nutrition. To reveal the abs we need to lose fat. The only way to lose fat is to expend more energy than we consume. Thus eating and nutrition are much more important for a flat tummy than sit-ups. All the exercise in the world won’t reveal your abs or remove your fat suit if you are eating more than you expend, and eating poorly at that. Only through creating a deficit, and eating healthy foods low in starch and sugar (that cause fat storage) will we get a flat tummy. Sit ups at this point will be like trying to fix a house by dropping bricks on it from a helicopter.
5 – HIIT. In the overall calorie stakes, high intensity interval training will help to burn the most energy in the least time. Rather than train slowly for a long time in the “fat burning zone”, we need to up the intensity. This will burn more energy, helping to create the all-important deficit, so you lose fat and get a flat tummy.
6 – Poor posture. By folding forwards in the midriff and hunching the shoulders (exactly what we do in sit-ups) we are encouraging poor posture. Part of any good personal training program should include a postural assessment and correctional exercises. Repeatedly bending forwards hundreds of times every week (doing sit-ups) encourages shortening of the tummy, chest and shoulder muscles while lengthening the musculature in the back. This will, over time, lead to rounded shoulders and poor posture.
So if crunches are no good, what should I do? Compound strength training exercises, done reasonably hard with a good weight is what you need. Obviously if you are a beginner then you will need to learn moves like barbell squats and dumbbell bent over rows with a light weight at first, but once you have mastered the basics, moves like chest presses, barbell squats our deadlifts, bent over rows, barbell clean and press will aid muscle growth, upping the metabolic rate. Eat well, with low sugar and starch, create an energy deficit most days (with the odd treat day), and you will burn only fat. Burn enough, and build enough muscle, and your 6 pack will be revealed!
Those of us over 40 know that staying fit and trim seems to require a lot more effort than it did when we were in our 20s. It becomes especially hard to maintain any semblance of a flat tummy. For those athletes among us, training hard for long sessions over most days of the week seems to bring only limited gains; it can actually make us feel lethargic and tired. But read on and learn how to stay fit over 40.
New research by a Welsh Doctor is beginning to show that less is more. Previously fitness and conditioning coach for both the Welsh national rugby team and top 12 club The Scarlets, Dr Peter Herbert is now an exercise physiologist and director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wales. Deceptively young looking for his age, Dr Herbert’s fit physique is not down to the usual long distance cycling or marathons usually taken up by middle aged men in midlife crises. His toned biceps are instead down to a scientifically proven regimen that is more minimal in approach.
Having taken up indoor cycling and rowing after retiring from rugby coaching, Dr Herbert found that hours and days in the gym training hard seemed to be achieving only diminishing returns.
Science has long known about the slippery slope of health past 40. A man’s maximum heart rate drops by a beat a minute per year after the age of 30; the heart’s capacity to pump blood comes down by 5-10% per decade; an average of 90g of lean muscle is lost each yer past the age of 40 (this decline is greater for women). After 50 these losses accelerate – a 15% drop in testosterone per year means that the male body loses up to 500g of lean muscle per year. This adds up – someone in their 70s doing no exercise will typically have ⅓ less muscle mass than their former 25 year old self.
Intrigued by recent findings showing the benefits if HIIT (high intensity interval training), especially for those previously sedentary and/or with diabetes, Dr Herbert started experimenting with shorter, but less frequent workouts. Using himself as a case study, Herbert cut out all long training sessions, putting a limit of 30 minutes on all lighter paced exercise. He then did just one, near maximal session per week on an exercise bike. Remarkably, his fitness improved.
“Within a couple of months I performed better in cycle races and I felt stronger” he says.
This gain triggered more studies on high intensity low frequency workouts for those over 40, not just for health and fitness but also to avoid niggles that become more common as we age. In one study, published in the American Gerontology Society Journal, Herbert recruited 20 hardcore veteran athletes from their mid 50s to their mid 70s who were training for competitive rowing, squash, cycling and triathlon events. He got them to stop training daily and follow his plan. A drastic reduction in training volume meant only one near maximal session every 5 days doing 6-10 30 second sprints on an indoor cycle. On days off exercise was allowed, but only “active recovery” in the form of 20-30 minutes of gentle aerobic activity.
The results were conclusive; there were large gains in VO2 max (maximum lung capacity), body fat dropped and leg strength improved by an average of 15%. This last gain was particularly significant, as leg strength has been linked to heart health and longevity in recent studies. The “fit-HIIT” also boosted levels of testosterone, meaning reduced loss of lean muscle mass.
Herbert says: “every 5 days I work to 90% of maximum capacity and then tick over, burning calories with gentle exercise”. He recently won bronze at the World masters Cycling Championships, and says he feels stronger and fitter than ever.
How does it work?
If you are new to exercise then some pre conditioning will be needed. Doing maximal intervals when coming from nothing isn’t advisable. This could be:
Week 1: walk 8-10 minutes a day (brisk pace)
Week 2: Walk or cycle 10-12 minutes a day
Week 3: walk or cycle for 15 minutes a day.
Week 4: walk or cycle for 20 minutes a day
Week 5: alternate days – day 1 – 20 minutes of cycling or fast walking. Day 2 – 4 minutes of walking or slow cycling with 3 minutes of faster cycling or jogging.
Week 6: alternate days – day 1 – 20 minutes of cycling or fast walking. Day 2 – 3 minutes of steady walking or cycling followed by 1 minute of faster running or cycling. This minute should be between 65-75% of flat out.
Then you’re ready for FIT-HIIT!
Days 1-3: 20 minutes of steady state jogging, rowing or cycling
Day 4: 20 minutes of very gentle aerobic exercise with 10 minutes of stretching.
Day 5: either 6 by 30 second sprints (flat out) with 3 minutes of comfortable recovery OR 6 by 20 second sprints with just 30s of gentle recovery for the more advanced.
Women who are older but have strong legs will do better when it comes to ageing of the brain, shows a study of more than 300 twins.
Researchers at King’s College in London showed that leg strength is a good marker of whether a person is getting enough exercise. In turn these levels of exercise have a strong link to brain health.
The study, published in the journal Gerontology, suggests that exercise releases chemicals into the brain that help to boost cognitive power in the elderly. Scientists tracked the health of over 15o pairs of twins aged between 43 and 73 (at the beginning of the study). Leg power was measured at the start of the study using a specially adapted gym machine. Brain power was then assessed using computer-based tasks that tested both memory and mental processing skills.
10 years later at the end of the study, the brain tests were repeated. The twin with greater leg power (and thus an assumption of greater overall fitness) had better cognitive power than the weaker sibling, even with other lifestyle factors that might usually increase chances of dementia.
Alzheimer’s Society director of research Dr Doug Brown said the study added to the growing evidence that physical activity could help look after the brain as well as the body.
“However, we still don’t fully understand how this relationship works and how we can maximise the benefit,” he said.
Lead researcher Dr Claire Steves said: “When it came to cognitive ageing, leg strength was the strongest factor that had an impact in our study.