When it comes to stretching, it's easy to focus on the larger muscles of the legs: the hamstrings, hips, quads—even the glutes.
But the calves? They don't get enough attention.
Calves can be a bit sneaky when it comes to announcing that they're overworked. "They frequently have a tone issue that doesn't present in much discomfort so people forget about them," says Julie Read, massage therapist and author of Muscles to the Masses. "Oftentimes, though, when palpated, clients are surprised that they are tender."
Grumpy calves can also lead to pain in other parts of the body. For example, poor calf mobility may lead to knee and ankle pain, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and even back issues. That's because the calf is made up of two muscles that attach at the knee and the bottom of your heel. The gastrocnemius is a big player in knee flexion, while the soleus is the main driver for plantar flexion (think: pointing your foot). Their fascia—or the thin layer of tissue that holds muscles together—reach all the way from the base of your foot to the back of the upper leg, adds Read. This means that tension in these areas can negatively affect how you squat, walk and stand, placing excess stress on other muscles, tendons, and joints.
The good news is, if you do the following massage techniques and calf stretches regularly, you'll be on your way to releasing tension and relieving pain ASAP.
How to Structure Your Mobility Session
Keep in mind that it's best to massage your calves before you attempt any stretches. This will tell your muscles to relax and allow you to lengthen even more. Then, when you're done stretching, try testing out your range of motion with a few bodyweight squats or lunges.
"When the brain sees that it can move safely in new ranges as a result of the pressure and active stretch combo, the brain says to the body, 'Now I can trust you, go ahead and keep that new range." says Read.
In other words, doing the exercises in this order will not only get you warmed up and limber for whatever you're about to tackle that day, it will help you stay mobile over time.
Best Calf Massages
1. Calf Massage with Lacrosse Ball
Grab a lacrosse ball or softball and sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Place the ball at the base of your right calf, just above the ankle. Move the ball side-to-side with your right leg, then gradually work the ball up toward the top of the calf. On your way there, if you find any tender spots, rest the ball there and rotate your foot clockwise and counterclockwise to massage them out for 10-15 seconds.
If you'd like to add more pressure, cross your left leg on top of your right shin. Elevating the ball on a yoga block can also help you dig in a bit more, as well as give you more room to move your ankle. Once you've messaged your right calf, spend the same amount of time exploring the left.
2. Soleus Foam Roller Massage
This one can feel quite intense and is best performed after massaging with the lacrosse ball.
Sitting on top of your foam roller with your feet in front of you, start by slowly shifting your butt side-to-side as you begin to feel for tender spots, working your way down to your calves. If you find a sore spot in this area, hold the foam roller here and breathe for 10-15 seconds or until you feel the trigger point release. Repeat this process until you've explored your calves, as well as your hamstrings and glutes.
Best Calf Stretches
1. Downward Facing Dog
This stretch is not only great for the calves, it's good for lengthening the hamstrings, opening up the shoulders, and warming up your ankles. Start in a quadruped position with your wrists directly beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Then, as you push your hands into the floor, move your head between your elbows and hike your butt into the air. Drive your heels towards the floor. Hold this anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute, peddling the feet occasionally.
2. Heel Drop Stretch
If you also want to stretch and strengthen your Achilles tendon, try this one: Take your yoga block, find a step or some elevated surface. Step both feet up and position your feet so that your right heel is over the edge. Drop most of your weight into that right heel as it drops toward the floor. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds to a minute, then switch sides. To stretch other angles of your calf, perform this stretch with the stretching leg slightly bent.
The heel drop can also be a great dynamic stretch to perform during your warmup and to test your range of motion. Start with the same setup but instead have both of your heels over the edge. Drop your heels toward the floor, then press through the balls of your feet as you raise the heels. Repeat for 8-12 reps.
3. Wall Calf Stretch
Start by standing about one to two feet away from a wall. Step your right foot forward and place the ball of that foot against the wall. Keep your right heel rooted in the floor. You can place your hands on the wall in front of your for support. To intensify the stretch, press through the left foot as the hips move forward. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds to one minute, then switch sides.
4. Banded Calf Stretch
Grab a resistance band (a strap, towel, or a rope could work well too) and sit with your legs straight in front of you. Loop the band around the ball of your right foot then pull the band as the toes flex towards you. Press your right heel away from you to intensify the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat on your right leg.
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