Your calf muscles are more important than you might think. For athletes, your soleus and gastrocnemius work as the brake, and gas pedals on a run, helping to propel you forward, allowing you to change directions, and even permitting you to stop or slow down when the occasion demands it. If you need to push your body up a steep hill, it's your calves that will get you to the top! If you want to slow down and avoid a tumble on the way back down, your calves (and perhaps your calf compression sleeve) will prevent your face plant.
For athletes, learning how to relieve tight calf muscles, avoid pain, and strengthen their lower body can lead to greater power, better running form, and even faster completion times. For the average Joe, stronger calves can prevent the discomfort of regular muscle tension - a problem that leads to common maladies such as strains, shin splints, and Achilles tendonitis. In fact, frequent muscle tension can often lead to a condition known as myofascial pain syndrome - a chronic disorder that involves regular pressure levied against certain points in your calf muscle.
Following, we'll give you the run down on how to relieve tight calf muscles, from what your leg pain really means to using your calf compression sleeve, to stretching to relieve muscle tension, and even engaging in self-myofascial release techniques.
Understanding Muscle Tension in Your Calves
It may surprise you to learn that tight calf muscles are a surprisingly common malady. In fact, many experts regard muscle tension in the calves to be one of the most frequent complaints heard from people who work out regularly.
Though runners are generally the most prone to calf tightness issues, you might also need to learn how to relieve tight calf muscles if you do a lot of plyometric exercises, repetitive movements, or jumping. For women, even wearing high-heels can aggravate the symptoms.
So what causes muscle tension, and tight calves?
As you may already know, there are two major muscles in the calf - the soleus and the gastrocnemius. We use these muscles every day when you lift your heel away from the ground to walk, run, jump, or even stand on your tip-toes because the Achilles tendon connects the muscles in your calf, to the muscles in your heel. The fact that calves are so complex, and so essential to typical movement, means that they are very prone to injury - particularly in cases where the muscles don't have the flexibility to move as they should.
When tightness begins to become evident, many people turn to their calf compression sleeve for help, but the truth is that you'll need more than that. Beyond support, you will need to learn how to stretch out muscle tension, and how to relieve tight calf muscles through motion.
What Can You Do About Calf Tightness?
The most effective thing anyone can do to banish muscle tension, is to stretch. Read any article on how to relieve tight calf muscles, and you'll learn that if you're not stretching regularly, you could be setting yourself up for discomfort. In fact, it's not even enough to simply stretch after a workout - you also need to keep stretching the muscles every few hours throughout the day if you're one of the millions of people who spend most of their time sitting.
Not sure where to get started? Follow this simple routine:
1. Begin by Stretching your Gastrocnemius
The first step is stretching your outer calf muscle, the gastrocnemius. Sit on the floor with both legs laid out straight in front of you, your heels against the ground and your toes pointing up. Using a resistance band situated around the balls of your feet, slowly flex your feet towards your body, stretching until you begin to feel a pull towards the rear of your calf. Hold the stretch for at least five seconds.
2. Stretch Your Soleus
The next step in figuring out how to relieve tight calf muscles, and cast away unwanted muscle tension, is to stretch your inner calf - the soleus. Sit down with your right leg straight in front of you, and the other leg bent. Hold your right foot and pull it up towards your body as far as you can without causing discomfort. Hold this stretch for a count of five, then relax and repeat.
3. Stretch the Achilles Tendon
Now, let's focus on the Achilles tendon that connects your calf to your heel. Sit on the ground again with your right leg straight and your left leg bent, then slide your left heel as close to your backside as you can. Work on pulling the top of your foot back towards your body on your right leg, while keeping your heel on the ground.
4. Stretch the Full Calf
Finally, finish your stretching routine with a move designed to release muscle tension throughout the entire lower leg. Perform a calf raise by standing with your hands on a table, or chair, then raise your heels away from the floor so that you're balancing on your tiptoes and the balls of your feet. You should be able to feel your calf muscles stretching. Hold the position for a few seconds, before relaxing and repeating.
Using Self-Myofascial Release
If you've followed our stretching tips for how to relieve tight calf muscles, and you're still experiencing muscle tension, then you might need some extra help beyond your calf compression sleeve. For instance, many experts recommend using a foam roller for self-myofascial release techniques.
Most of the time, you should be able to buy a foam roller relatively cheap, and you can use it to help you stretch out tight muscles before and after a workout. Simply sit on the floor with your legs situated straight in front of you, and put the roller beneath your knees. Lift your backside away from the floor with your hands, and use your legs to roll the foam roller down to the base of your calves. If you notice any tender points, you'll need to hold the pressure there until the tension starts to dissolve.
Self-myofascial release techniques work by manipulating the neuromuscular receptors in your calves to allow the muscle to relax. Because of this, a regular routine before your workout will improve your mobility, flexibility, and comfort.
Let us know if our stretching techniques worked for you, and if you have any techniques or tips for how to relieve tight calf muscles that we should know about!