What to Do About Tight Calf Muscles
So your calf muscles are tight? What is the big deal?
Ignoring tightness in the calf is not a good idea. Tight calves can put you at a greater risk for injuries such as ankle sprains, shin splints, feet problems, hamstring problems, knees, hips and the list goes on and on.
This article will address ways to handle tight calf muscles and potentially help you avoid “not so pleasant” experiences like I had the other day when I was experiencing tightness in my calf muscles…
Photo credit: Oneras
Psyched that once again I had exercised the self-discipline to drag myself out of bed, I was trotting along down the road. I was only about 5 minutes into my run when I started to wonder if I should continue on. My calf muscles felt EXTREMELY tight, and I felt like they might cramp up at any moment.
With a short internal debate as to whether I should listen to my calves and either stop, stretch, or change my exercise plan for the day, OR listen to my competitive side, craving a successful run with desired calories burned, I was abruptly interrupted by a sharp, shooting pain, and a near intimate encounter with the pavement.
Yep, I had twisted my ankle. It was the same ankle I have twisted literally a hundred times in my life, thanks to years of gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, and of course finding just the right divots on various runs throughout my life.
The funny thing was, it had been quite a while since the last sprain and I was beginning to feel invincible. Let’s just say, I felt anything but invincible and wished I had addressed those tight calf muscles before I found myself hobbling down the road at a snail’s pace trying to walk it off.
Listen to your body! It tells you really valuable information!
What are the Calf Muscles?
Gastrocnemius: this muscle is a large muscle located on the back of the leg, just below the knee. It is involved in standing, walking, running, and jumping. Its function is plantar flexion, or pointing the foot, and flexing the leg at the knee joint.
Soleus: a strong muscle located on the back part of the lower leg, running from the knee to the heel. It plays a major role in standing and walking. Without its constant pull, the body would fall forward. Its function is plantar flexion, or pointing the foot.
Common Causes of Calf Muscle Tightness
• Genetics: some people are just predisposed to have tighter calf muscles than others. This may have a lot to do with length of muscles, etc.
• Biomechanical Problems: the way a person runs may lead to more muscle tightness.
• Wearing High-Heels: Wearing high heels puts the wearer in a state of constant flexion of the calf muscles which can increase tightness in the calf.
• Weak Hamstring and Glute Muscles: Having weak hamstrings and glute (butt) muscles can place added stress on calf muscles as they try to overcompensate for the weakness.
• Not Stretching Regularly or Properly: Calf muscles can gradually tighten up over time through poor and inconsistent stretching habits.
Tips for Stretching a Stiff Calf Muscle
Stretch gently, DO NOT bounce, never force the stretch, ease into the stretch until you can feel the muscle stretching, try to relax the muscles, hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, repeat each stretch 2-3 times, be consistent in your stretching, and do most of your stretching AFTER your workout, with light, short duration stretches done during the warm-up.
5 Great Stretches/Techniques for Fixing a Tight Calf Muscle
1. Calf Stretch via Stairway: Straight Knee: Place right foot on lowest stair and your left foot on the next step up. Move your right foot so that the heel is hanging off the edge, and lower it down until you feel a nice, deep stretch in the middle of the large muscle (gastrocnemius). Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Be sure to breathe smoothly throughout the exercise. Switch legs and repeat.
2. Calf Stretch via Stairway: Bent Knee: Follow the directions for the previous stretch, only this time, once the right heel is lowered, gently bend your right knee, sinking down slightly as if to put all the weight on your right heel (figuratively speaking since your heel is in the air). You can maneuver your weight around until you feel the stretch in the intended area, which should be the area low on the calf (soleus), close to the Achilles tendon. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
3. Seated Hamstring/Calf Stretch: Sit on the floor with right leg out in front, left knee bent with foot against inner thigh of right leg, close to the pelvis. Grab your foot with both hands, and straighten your leg as much as you can. Emphasis in this exercise is on pulling the foot, with less concern on getting the leg all the way straight. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
4. Back Lying Towel Hamstring/Calf Stretch: Lying on your back, bend your knees, keeping your feet flat on the ground. Take a towel and wrap it around the bottom of the right foot. Extend your right leg upward. As you try to straighten the leg, gently pull the towel toward you in an effort to flex the foot, initiating a stretch that goes from your heel all the way to your tailbone. Hold stretch for at least 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
5. Self-MyoFascial Release: This is a technique that is designed to release trigger points and break up clumped and gnarled connective tissue (knots) that is causing tightness in the calf. You can use a foam roller or a massage stick to help relax the tension in the muscle and dissipate knots. Be sure to roll tender spots with a foam roller and then gently massage the area until you feel significantly less pain. I’m not going to lie. This hurts like CRAZY, but it WORKS! It really, really WORKS! However, do not rush this exercise. Take your time. Pushing too hard or going through it too quickly can lead to more problems.
If you have a tight calf muscle, or are experiencing calf muscle pain, it is a good idea to address it rather than push through it. Despite, genetics, biomechanical issues, high-heel wearing, or weak hamstring and glute muscles, engaging in a solid, consistent stretching program will go a long way in solving the problem, or preventing problems from occurring in the first place (unless you have been advised by a doctor to avoid such stretching). Foam rollers are also an excellent tool for helping to get the kinks out. Be smart. Don’t learn the hard way like me. A few extra minutes of stretching each day will keep you on your feet and make calf tightness a thing of the past.
Gastrocnemius Muscle. (Last modified December 28, 2011). Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastrocnemius_muscle
Ng, Nick. (May 4, 2011). “Exercises and Stretches for Tight Calf Muscles.” Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/100627-exercises-stretches-tight-calf-muscles/
Pilipuf, Evamarie. (2008). “10 Ways to Stretch Tight Calf Muscles.” Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://theflexibilitycoach.com/Articles/8_10_Ways_to_Stretch_Tight_Calf_Muscles.htm
Soleus Muscle. (Last modified November 20, 2011). Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soleus_muscle
“Tight Calf Muscles.” (2012). Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/sport-injuries/ankle-achilles-shin-pain/tight-calf-muscles
“What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” (July 17, 2009). Retrieved on January 12, 2012 from http://thehungryrunner.wordpress.com/2009/07/17/what-causes-calf-muscle-tightness/