I don't know about you but I suffer from some pretty tight calf muscles and I definitely don't spend enough time loosening them up. If you think about it, your calf muscles connect your foot/ankle to your knee. Both of these joints require a huge amount of mobility to function correctly (try walking without bending your ankle or your knee...not easy).
The problem with tight calf muscles
If your calf muscles get too tight, you aren't able to flex and extend your foot adequately, your brain will tell other muscles to work harder to get the mobility you need. Specifically, it will tell the muscles in your shin to pull your foot up harder since it's working against a tight calf muscle. What is normally a pretty easygoing relationship between your calf and shin muscles becomes more like trying to push a dead car up a hill by yourself. The increased demand of the muscles in the shin will likely cause you to get some sort of " itis" in your shin or foot.
The other place your brain goes when your calves aren't functioning as they should, is your plantar fascia (the tissue across the bottom of your foot). With excessively shortened (i.e. tight) calf muscles, your body shifts it's load to the midfoot instead of the heel. If this happens for a long time then the plantar fascia hardens and has no way to displace the load of the body on the foot.
Stretches for tight calf muscles
1. Standing forward bend. With your heels firmly planted on the ground and your quads contracted, keep your knees straight. Slowly bend forward and place your hands on the ground about a foot in front of your toes. Keeping your heels grounded and your knees straight, press your thighs back to the wall behind you. Take a few breaths and walk your hands out a few more inches pausing to breathe again. Repeat this process a few more times until you find the position where you feel an intense calf stretch.
2. Downward facing dog. Get on the floor with your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are directly under your hips and your hands are slightly forward from your shoulders. Lift your knees away from the floor keeping your knees slightly bent if needed. Lengthen your tailbone away from your pelvis and lift your hips towards the ceiling. With a deep breath push the tops of your thighs back and stretch your heels down. Step one foot forward, bending your knee over the ankle. Make sure that your back foot still points straight ahead so you get an even stretch. Slide the forward foot back until you have a moderate stretch in your calf, but not so far that your heel comes off the floor. Actively press your heel into the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.
3. Half split. This is a great stretch for both your hamstrings and calves. Kneel with your hips over your knees and extend your right leg forward with the foot flexed and your heel on the ground. Stay upright or fold forward and place your fingers on the ground. Take a few deep breaths. Point your toe downward and take a few more breaths. Repeat with the left leg extended.
4. Triangle with flexed foot. This stretch is entered into most easily from downward facing dog. From downward facing dog, step your right foot forward between your hands. Bend your right knee, put your hands on your hips, and lift your torso to a standing position. Straighten both legs and keep your pelvis square. Flex your foot and reach towards the floor (you can use a prop or yoga block if you can't reach the floor). Take a few deep breaths. Then place both hands on the ground and step back into downward facing dog, step your left foot forward and repeat.
Other ways to love your calf muscles
Stretch your calves every day. If you can find the time, do it many times per day. 60 seconds of deep stretching (uncomfortable, but not painful stretching) several times a day is all it takes. The ‘foot up against a wall’ stretch is an easy one that can be done almost anywhere.
Stop wearing heeled shoes. Including your running shoes. However, do not go cold turkey into zero-drop shoes! It can take 6 months or more to train your feet to go from typical positive-heeled shoes down to zero drop shoes. I don't currently run in zero drop shoes, but I do run in more minimal shoes (I think they have a 6mm drop, "normal" running shoes have upwards of 12mm).
Spend some time walking around barefoot every day. Start slowly, on soft surfaces for a few minutes per day if it hurts. I'm not good at not wearing shoes outside, but I try very hard not to wear them when I'm inside at home.
Start rolling your foot on a golf ball (or one of these). Your plantar fascia will thank you!
I'd like to say a special thanks to my dog Kiva for "helping" me with the photos used in this post.
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