Move Beyond Stretching for Tight Calves
Are your calves always tight? Do you have foot, ankle, or toe pain? A common
denominator for all of these symptoms can be lack of mobility at the ankle joint.
Ankle dorsiflexion, or the ability of the shin bone to progress forward while the foot
is on the ground, is an important component of running that when lacking, can cause
injuries to not only the foot/ankle, but also of the knee, hip, and low back.
The ankle joint is primarily made up of 3 bones: the tibia (shin bone), fibula, and the
talus directly beneath. Several muscles cross the ankle joint, however for our
purposes we will focus on the two that have the potential to limit ankle dorsiflexion:
the gastrocnemius, which crosses the knee joint, and soleus, which stops just before.
To summarize, ankle dorsiflexion can be limited by muscle tightness, stiffness of the
joint, or both.
It is important to address all of the anatomical components that may be limiting
your ankle motion in order to see objective improvements. For example, if there is a
joint restriction present, stretching the calves won’t be as effective because the joint
won’t allow you to fully stretch them. Let’s go over how to troubleshoot your ankles
and help decide where to focus your ankle mobility energy.
Step 1: Assess
To check your ankle mobility, kneel down into a lunge position near a wall. Start
with your toes touching the wall, and then bring your knee forward, until it also
touches the wall. Do not allow your heel to come off of the ground, and make sure
that your arch doesn’t collapse as you do so. Move your foot back and repeat this
exercise until you can no longer touch the wall, and measure how far your big toe is
away from it. Complete on the other side, comparing between sides and taking note
of where in your ankle you feel the “tightness”, or restriction. If you feel it more in
the Achilles, you are limited by calf tightness. If more in the front of the ankle, you
likely have more of a joint mobility issue.
Step 2: Treat!
If you felt a “pinch”, or tightness in the front of an ankle, a self-mobilization of the
ankle joint can be performed in order to loosen the joint. Start in either a standing
lunge position or in half-kneeling, similarly to the test described above. Use a dog
leash, thin belt, or thick resistance band (search for “pull up assist band” or
“Monster band” and pick one that is about 0.5” to 1” wide). Attach the band or strap
to something that won’t move easily, and place the strap just underneath the two
ankle bones. Make sure that the band or strap is pulling downward, as opposed to
upward or Lunge forward and bring your knee as far over your toes as you can
without the heel coming up. If you feel a “pinch” in the front of your ankle, stop and
return to the starting position. As the joint loosens up, you should be able to go
further without the pinch.
If you felt more muscular tension with the test, it may be more beneficial for you to
focus on the calf muscles. As aforementioned, there are two major muscles that limit
ankle dorsiflexion: The gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastroc crosses the knee
joint, while the soleus does not. Therefore, the stretch for each muscle is slightly
different, and stretching both will maximize gains in mobility. There are a variety of
ways to complete these stretches, but shown below is my favorite. The major
difference between the two is that the knee is bent to stretch the soleus and straight
to stretch the gastroc. Hold the stretch for 60-90 seconds.
Photo credit: Hep2go.com
Another way to improve the mobility of the calf muscles (and improving the quality
of your stretch) is by performing self-myofascial release to improve fascial mobility
and eliminate trigger points, or tight areas of muscle. This can be done with a foam
roller, lacrosse ball/tennis ball, or even a towel. Spend 3-5 minutes per leg, focusing
on areas of the muscle that feel more sensitive than others. While this should be
relatively uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be painful or leave bruises after. Here are
some examples of different techniques:
After you improve your ankle range of motion, you have to teach your body how to
use it functionally. One way to do this is to perform exercises at the limit of your
range of motion. For the ankle joint, this involves practicing activating the muscles
on the front of the shin while the ankle is in maximal dorsiflexion.
Start in a half kneeling lunge. Bring your knee as far forward as you can without
your heel coming up. From this position, activate the muscle on the front of your
shin (tibialis anterior), as if you are trying to lift your foot off of the ground. You will
be unable to lift your foot from this position, but you should feel a strong muscle
contraction on the front of your leg. Hold for 5 seconds, and repeat 10-15 times. This
is a good exercise to perform prior to running, as it will increase your brain’s
awareness of the newly gained range of motion and help to decrease tension in the
A Physical Therapist can help evaluate and treat the cause of your tight calves,
ankles, or pain in this region. There can be reasons completely unrelated to the
foot/ankle for this issue as well, and it’s important that you get the right exercise
routine and treatment to keep your feet and ankles happy!
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT