If you’re walking, running, or jumping, you’re using your calf muscles. During each of these movements, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to allow forward movement. Your calves can get tight for a number of reasons including lack of hydration, lack of stretching, or simply running, or working out a lot to name a few. Because the body is one “kinetic chain,” tight calves can lead to other problems with your feet, your hips, or even your back.
Since straining your calf would definitely slow you down, we asked our experts for their favorite ways to stretch the calf and ensure that it’s in top shape to keep you moving.
I think the best way to relieve tight calves is to take a strategic approach and measure the effects of your actions. There are a few primary options to consider (1) rolling your calves, (2) roll the bottom of your feet on a ball and (3) stretching, including a weighted calf stretch. So stretching is likely a part of the puzzle. I don’t think yanking on things like with band distractions is a good idea.
Every time you take an action to improve your calves whether it be foam rolling or stretching, measure your ankle mobility by placing your foot facing a wall a few inches away, then press your knee to the wall without lifting your heel. Measure the distance between your toes and the wall to see how your doing. You want to be at a point so that you have maximum distance from the wall, but your heel is still against the ground and knee touching the wall.
The idea is to take actions that actually make a difference so you don’t waste your time. You may find going to a doctor or manual therapist may be in order if you are not making much progress to learn more. The tightness may not not be from muscle knots. You may have bone spurs that are preventing you from increasing mobility.
– Marc Perry ,CSCS, CPT
Foam rolling. Or the yoga pose: downward facing dog. I’m a runner, so my calves tend to get pretty tight. To counteract that, I like to practice yoga. I find that down dog is the best way to lengthen my calves and relieve tightness.
I like to use self-myofascial release with a softball or hard foam roller for the “calf stretch.” Just make sure that you relax your foot so your toes are not pointing up towards you. This is especially true at the lower end of the calf where you’re targeting more the soleus muscle. A bit higher up, I prefer doing both the inner and outer parts of the gastroc muscle belly. After that, I’ll also stand on a softball or other ball in the middle of my foot for a minute or so and then do a standard calf stretch. Those three things help to relieve tightness in the calves the best.
I recommend a three-pronged approach to help relieve muscle stiffness in the calves including soft tissue modalities, using a slant board for a stretch, and mobilizing the ankle joint. To release the tissue use a foam roller, lacrosse ball or simply knead the calf muscles to loosen them up as well as increase their temperature.
Once you have improved the quality of the tissue, it’s time to get a good stretch by standing tall with one foot on a slant board. If you don’t have a slant board you can use a cutting board propped up on a step or simply hang off a step. Hold for at least 1 minute, which should actively release the calf muscles and repeat if necessary.
To maintain mobility of the ankle you should regularly mobilize the joint by moving it around. My favorite drill is to stand facing a wall with one foot about 6” away. Hold onto the wall with your hands and move your knee towards the wall touching it then moving it back. Make sure to keep your heel on the ground – you can adjust the distance if necessary.
If we are aiming to increase mobility at the ankle level, we can use a combination of methods, not just one in order to relieve “tightness.” I enjoy using a lacrosse ball (realistically any ball – baseball, tennis ball, etc) and put some pressure on the calves in order to relieve the initial tension. After doing so, we can inhibit the tone of the muscle with static stretching – whether it is dropping your heels past a step, or grabbing a rope or band, wrapping it around your toes, and pulling it towards you – either method works.