Calf or Leg Pain (Intermittent Claudication) is a condition that causes pain in the muscles of the legs, most commonly the calf muscles, but can also affect the muscles in the thighs and hips. The pain is caused by limited blood flow to the muscles due to clogged arteries. Muscles require more oxygen during exercise. If the arteries cannot provide enough blood flow then the blood cannot deliver enough oxygen. Muscles that do not get enough oxygen become painful. When you stop exercising, not as much oxygen is required and the pain goes away.

Another common cause of calf or leg pain with exercise is a pinched nerve in the back affecting one or both legs. How do you tell the difference between pain caused by limited blood flow, a pinched nerve, or some other problem causing leg pain?

Limited Blood Flow (Claudication)

Pain that starts at a consistent time or distance and increases with increased walking speed, distance, or walking up hill.

Pain that improves with rest, either standing or sitting.

Pinched Nerve due to Spinal Stenosis

Pain that increases with increased walking speed or distance.

The pain improves with resting with the low back bent forward as in sitting but not with standing.

Pain may be less when walking up hill or relieved by bending forward slightly.

Cycling, on a standard or a recumbent bike puts the low back into a forward bend position which may decrease your leg pain.

If you have leg pain at rest or with activity you should check with your doctor to determine the cause before beginning an exercise program.

Aerobic Exercise

Claudication is one condition where exercising with pain is beneficial. Exercising to the point of strong but tolerable pain will gradually increase your ability to walk farther, faster, and longer. Interval training is the best way to train initially. Walk as long as you can, rest, then resume exercise, working up to a total of at least 150 minutes per week. Cycling can be less painful but the best exercise to improve your calf, thigh, or buttock pain is walking.

With spinal stenosis, cycling may be your best exercise option or a combination of walking and cycling.

Do exercise that increases your heart rate and breathing rate. At least 150 minutes per week of moderate or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise is recommended. Exercise at least 3 days each week. Exercise can be done in one session each day or in multiple short sessions. If you cannot do this much exercise, especially when you first start exercising that is OK. This is amount of exercise is recommended but any amount you do will improve your health.

Aerobic or endurance exercise is one important part of a healthy lifestyle. Adding resistance and flexibility training will provide even more benefit.

Resistance Exercise

Resistance training can increase your strength, making your daily activities easier. Exercise for all upper and lower body major muscle groups 2 to 3 days each week. You can perform resistance training on consecutive days but not for the same muscles. Allow at least 48 hours rest between exercise sessions for each muscle group. Resistance training can be done with machines, free weights, elastic bands, or body weight resistance.

Do resistance training for a muscle groups but focus on the leg muscles, especially the calves, thighs , and hips.

Flexibility Exercise

This is most effective after your resistance or aerobic training sessions when your muscles are warm. Stretches should be done for all major muscle groups at least 2 to 3 days each week. Stretches should be held for at least 10 seconds for a total of 60 seconds for each muscle group. Stretching for the calf , thigh, and hip muscles may be helpful. Flexibility exercises for the back may be helpful if you have spinal stenosis. Check with your physician or physiotherapist to determine what exercises or activities you should avoid and what will be helpful for your specific condition.

Balance / Agility Exercise

Balance and agility is not only important for sports, it is also important for day to day activities. Activities such as climbing a ladder, standing on one foot to put your pants on, or getting in and out of a boat require considerable balance and agility. There are many ways to improve your balance skills such as standing on one foot, doing exercises on a wobble board or BOSU ball, Tai Chi, or yoga. Balance exercises should be done at least 2 to 3 days each week.