“Ooooooowwwww.” This is the sound of foam rolling, probably heard long before it’s seen. The sound of someone foam rolling a tight calf is an unmistakeable echo that travels around the gym and unfortunately tight calves are common.
What causes tight calves?
The two main muscles in your calves are the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscle.
The gastrocnemius is the muscle which you can see bulge as you flex your foot, whilst the soleus sits behind it. These muscles lift your heel up and down when walking, running or (if you’re short like me) standing on tiptoes. Your achilles tendon attaches these muscles to your heel and can also be susceptible to pain, particularly if your calves are tight already. Common causes include but are not limited to:
- High heels: Spending the majority of your time in heels can cause your calf muscles to shorten. This then creates tension in the achilles and can lead to chronic pain. Damage to the calves caused by wearing high heels can be permanent.
- Sitting down: When you sit down for long periods of time your calves shorten. So if you work in an office and walk around in heels all day, you’re very lucky if you’ve escaped the aches!
- Running: Over-working the calf muscles through exercise can also cause tightness due to the enhanced volume of neural stimulation. Running uphill is often a cause.
- Plyometrics: Jumping can over work the calves as they work to explode you upwards and cushion the landing phase of the jump.
How do I test if I have tight calves?
Try these two tests to see if you are experiencing tight calves:
- Whilst sitting, lift your leg straight out in front of you, point your toes up and then pull them back toward your knee. You should feel a stretch in your calf muscles as you pull them back. Next week look at the range of motion you’re able to get, can you bend your ankle 10-20° past a right angle? If you’re struggling with this, the chances are you’re suffering from tight calves.
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart and squat as low as you can, shifting your weight back through your heels. If your heels rise off the floor while you are squatting, you may have tight calf muscles and also hamstrings. If you are blessed with full range of motion, your heels will stay flat on the ground while you bring your thighs all the way down until they touch your calves. Impressive.
How to foam roll my calves?
Foam rolling uses a technique called self myofascial release by manipulating and releasing fascial tension caused by trauma and inflammation, which can be particularly beneficial to tight aching calves. To foam roll calves follow these steps:
- Sit on the floor and place the foam roller underneath your calves, starting just beneath the knee.
- Place both hands by your sides and lift off as though you were performing a reverse plank, which places your bodyweight onto the calf muscles.
- Slowly push your body backwards so the foam roller rolls down to the achilles and then roll forwards to return to the start position. Imagine you are rolling out pastry. It takes a few rolls until you start to feel any difference.
- As you roll you should feel trigger points, these are the places where there is the most tension in the calves and they will feel like painful knots as you roll over them. As you reach a knot, this is where you need to apply more pressure in order to release the tension. Slow down and use little pulses over the knot until you feel it reduce.
- To add increased pressure isolate each calf one at a time, so now your upper body weight is focused over one leg.
- To intensify this further still, cross the legs one over the other, now your entire bodyweight is focused over one calf.
- As you roll your calf back and forth, rotate it slightly to make sure pressure is applied to the entire muscle. Try rolling with your feet facing inwards and outwards to combat the internal and external sides of the muscles.
When should I foam roll my calves?
Foam rolling your calves before a workout or run will help release any tension or imbalance before the activity as well as enhance your range of motion. Foam rolling after will help to release tension caused by the activity itself and is equally as valuable to your training regime.
With foam rolling, I’m afraid it really is no pain, no gain. Your calves will thank you in the long run.