There are many reasons calf muscles can get tight. For women, high heels are the most obvious culprit. For men, dress shoes with raised heels and athletic shoes with tall, super cushy heels can also put the calves in a shortened position. Anyone who lifts weights in special weight-lifting shoes (again with a raised heel) or who sits for long hours in a seat that requires tippy-toe stabilization is also at risk of developing tight calves.
What are the consequences of having tight calves?
The most common complain is pain in the bottom of the foot. This could be heel pain, pain in the arches, or sensitivity in the plantar fascia (the web of connective tissue in the bottom of your foot). On a side note, tight calves are very, very commonly blamed for plantar fasciitis, but this is not always the case, so if constant stretching of the calves doesn’t solve your particular case of plantar fasciitis, there are other suspects to investigate.
More pernicious symptoms of tight calves include an inability to get full depth on a squat, pain in the knee(s), and aches and tweaks in the hips and low back. These may sound strange, but once you start loosening tight calves, the relationship between your ankle mobility (which tight calves will limit) and the health and function of your knees, hips, and back becomes very clear. Imagine you have a cast on your ankle that keeps it completely stiff (or use a bandage and actually wrap your ankle up tight). Now try to squat ten times and see how it feels in your knees, hips, and back.
What can you do about tight calves?
There are many ways to loosen up your calves. One is stretching, and one involves a higher level of productive masochism.
For stretching, you can use a standard calf stretch against the wall. In this stretch, you lean up against a wall, put one foot back, and straighten the knee with as much of the foot in contact with the floor as you can muster. This stretch will hit the bellies of the gastrocnemius muscles, the two fat guys that we all think of when we think of your calves.
If you stay in the same position and bend the knee, you may feel a different stretch deeper in the calf. This is the soleus that is hidden beneath the gastrocnemius. Because of the way the soleus is arranged, the knee bend is crucial to stretching it properly. Holds of 30 to 60 seconds are in the general sweet spot for most people. Depending on how tight your calves are, you may need to hold for longer periods and do the stretches more frequently.
You can also do a yoga position like the downward dog, though for many people this may require too much strength and coordination to do properly and effectively enough for the calves.
The Egoscue Method also has a great stretch that can help tight calves called Wall Drop that is quite effective. You need a slant board or a foot stool to do this stretch. It’s a simple set up that drops your heels down below the ball of the foot. You hold for three to five minutes. Your calves will hate you by the end.
Now, for the more intense, productive masochism.
Self myofascial release can be extremely productive and painful. Using a foam roller or a lacrosse ball, you can get a lot of pressure directly into your calf. Just place your calf over your torture implement, put your other leg over that leg (more weight = more better), then roll all around your calf to find tight, knotty spots.
When you find them, grind away on them until you’re satisfied that you’ve mashed out any possible survivors, then move on. I generally recommend spending about two to five minutes doing this on each calf over the course of several weeks to see solid results (i.e. less pain and more flexibility). Start with two minutes, then work up to five if you feel you need/can tolerate more. If you feel nothing doing self myofascial release, have a personal trainer or another professional check out how you’re doing it to make sure you aren’t managing to cheat yourself of the good stuff. You can even post a youtube video and link me, and I’ll check your form. For some, there may be no substitute for having a deep tissue or fascial massage professional crank in there, but you’ll never know if you don’t try!
Is it all the same?
No matter what stretches you choose to do consistently, it’s important to remember that myofascial release is different than stretching. The type of stimulus each gives to your nervous system is very different, but both methods will help you get closer to your goal of loosening up your tight calves.
A simple test for improved calf mobility
One of the best ways to motivate yourself to continue these stretches is to test your mobility before and after your routine. The test is simple. Do a bodyweight squat. See how it feels. See how low you get. Do your stretches and myofascial release, then do the squat again. If your calves have been limiting your ability to squat, you’ll notice a huge difference in the sensations you feel (the squat should feel smoother and easier) and the depth you achieve.
If you have some of the painful symptoms of tight calves, track how you feel over two weeks, and see what happens to those aches and pains. If all goes well, the pain will start melting away.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below!