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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.