8 Reasons to Stretch your Calf Muscles
Everyone probably knows how to perform the basic calf stretch and it’s often one of the few stretches people bother with after a session of physical activity. However, there are lots of reasons why taking the time to stretch and look after this area properly will save you pain and injury in the longer term.
- The gastrox is the more superficial of the two, and is the primary muscle that provides forward propulsion in walking and running. It attaches from the lower posterior surface of the femur (thigh bone), crossing the knee joint, merging with the Achilles tendon and attaching onto the heel bone (calcaneus). It performs two actions, assisting the hamstrings to bend the knee and also plantar flexing the ankle (pointing the toe).
- The soleus lies underneath the gastrox and merges into the Achilles tendon to plantar flex the ankle. It also works continuously to maintain an upright position in standing. For this reason, it tends to develop adhesions and tender points that may develop into trigger points.
What’s the problem with having tight calf muscles?
Numerous injuries can be exacerbated or even caused by tight calf muscles: –
- Plantar Fasciitis
- Achilles tendonitis
- “Shin Splints” – a general term that includes medial tibial stress syndrome, chronic compartment syndrome.
- Trigger points on the soleus cause referred pain in the buttocks, heel, mid-sole of the foot, posterior leg.
- Trigger points on the gastrocnemius cause referred pain in the lateral leg, posterior knee and mid foot.
- Knee pain
- Hip pain
- Back pain
All these injuries can be at least partly attributed to restriction of dorsiflexion of the ankle (the action of pulling the toes upwards to create a stretch in the calves). This limitation can cause compensatory postural changes in the ankles, knees and hips leading to potential problems in these areas.
A straightforward example of this is walking. Imagine your right calf is tight causing limited dorsiflexion of the right ankle. During the gait cycle, when your right foot is on the ground, the left leg swings through, meaning the right ankle must go into dorsiflexion. Because dorsiflexion is inhibited the right foot over pronates to increase dorsiflexion, causing the leg to inwardly rotate. Repeated over pronation and inward rotation can cause injuries like plantar fasciitis, shin splints and Achilles tendonitis.
Take squatting as another example. When we squat, we need to maintain a centre of gravity to prevent ourselves from toppling over. If dorsiflexion of the ankle is restricted, the knees won’t come as far forward, so to maintain our balance the hips must compensate by flexing the upper body further forward, placing the spine under more pressure. This compensatory chain will work its way up the body, effecting muscular balance and stability.
How do you know if you’ve got limited ankle dorsiflexion?
Try deep squatting – a position in which the hips, knees and ankles are in full flexion with the feet flat on the ground. If your heels begin to lift before you’ve settled down onto your haunches, you probably have limited ankle dorsiflexion.
A more scientific test is the lunge test – try it: –
- Stand facing a wall with the foot of the leg being tested about 10 cm away from the wall.
- Place the other foot about a ruler’s length behind the one being tested.
- Bend the front knee forward until it touches the wall without lifting the heel off the ground.
- If the knee doesn’t touch the wall without the heel coming off the ground, move the foot closer to the wall and repeat.
- If the knee can touch the wall, move the foot further away and repeat.
- Measure the maximum distance between the end of the big toe and the wall, at which the knee can touch the wall without the heel lifting. Less than 10 cm is considered restricted ankle dorsiflexion.
What are the causes of tight calf muscles?
Insufficient stretching of the calf muscles after exercise is certainly a contributor.
Wearing high heels puts the foot into plantar flexion and shortens the calf muscles – certainly another contributor.
But quite possibly the most common reason for short calf muscles is the usual suspect and enemy of good posture – sitting!
When we sit in a chair our knees are usually at 90 degrees, which puts the gastrox into its shortened position. Wearing heels will add to the problem.
What do I do about it?
Fortunately, there are numerous effective ways to stretch and self-massage the calves. A great starting point are these ideas from one of my favourite websites. Note that when stretching the calf muscles, it’s important to do both a straight leg stretch for the gastrox and a bent leg stretch for the soleus.
And James Dunne has got never-ending ideas on foam rollering the calf muscles, which helps keep those exquisitely painful trigger points at bay.
So, take the Lunge Test, and start to incorporate some calf stretching and rolling into your daily routine – even a couple of times a week will make a difference, I promise!