Stretch Those Calves!

As a running coach, I often repeat myself.  A lot.  Usually to different people, but sometimes to the same clients (*ahem*ahem*) over and over.  My oft-repeated phrases include:

  1. Please get properly fitted in high quality sneakers.  Are those your mowing sneakers?  Do they have more than 400+ miles / 650 km on them? How old are those shoes?  PLEASE, go get fitted in the right sneakers.  Like, yesterday.
  2. Please SLOW DOWN during your long and easy runs.  No, seriously. Slow down. No, like sloooooooow.
  3. Please, for the sake of your feet and legs, stretch your calves!!!  [Or your hips. But that’s a different post altogether.]

Today, in light of my two-week plantar fasciitis anniversary, and a calf-tightening race I did yesterday (race report on its way), we’re going to talk about calf stretching.  What problems can be addressed (in part) by calf stretching?

  • Your feet hurt.
  • Your plantar fascia is tweaking.
  • Your shins are sore.
  • Your calves ache.
  • You ran the Venus Run yesterday and finished up a big ‘ole ramp onto Marina Barrage.

Stretching your calves and Achilles tendons helps keep your legs and feet limber, moving smoothly, and feeling springy.  Long, relaxed muscles also perform better, cramp less, and are less likely to aggravate knee and ankle issues.  

And you can start to get these benefits with 3 basic moves and as little as 6 minutes of stretching.  Do these with sneakers on, or in bare feet on a yoga mat.  Hold each pose for ~20 seconds, then repeat with the other leg. Here’s what to do:

Stretch #1: Standing Calf Stretch

Standing Calf Stretch 1

Standing Calf Stretch

      • Stand facing a wall, arms up and elbows slightly bent
      • Keep your right foot forward (toes under elbows)
      • Step your left foot back (18-24 inches / 46-60 cm)
      • Lean forward slightly, and press your palms into the wall, at or slightly above shoulder-height
      • Keep both feet completely on the ground – if your heel comes up, bring your feet a bit closer together
      • Push into your feet strongly (almost like you’re trying to push your right foot forward and left foot back – resist by planting your feet firmly into the floor)
      • Push gently against the wall to feel a stretch in the back of your left leg
      • Hold ~20 seconds.

 

Now, let’s move that stretch down into the Achilles: Lift your left heel up slightly, and bend your left knee. Continue to press the ball of your left foot firmly into the ground.  This should bring the stretch down into your Achilles tendon.  The difference is subtle, but important.  Compare these two pictures:

Heel Down (Calf Stretch)

Heel Down, Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Heel Up, Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Heel Up, Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Hold this bent-knee version for 20 seconds.  Now repeat, stretching the right leg.

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes


Stretch #2: Step Calf Stretch

In real-life, I suggest that you use an actual step, preferably the bottom one.  However, in our apartment, the stairwell isn’t conducive to good photos, so I used our (very stable and safe) step-ladder to demonstrate these stretches.

Step Calf Stretch

Step Calf Stretch

  • Stand on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, facing upward
  • Plant your right foot firmly on the step and keep most of your weight over this foot
  • Position the ball of your left foot at the edge of the step
  • Slowly lower your left heel down
  • Use your body weight to provide enough pressure to feel a stretch, but don’t force the stretch

 

 

 

 

Just as above, you can move the stretch into the Achilles by slightly bending your knee.  Remember to keep your weight in your right leg, and apply only gentle pressure to your left leg.

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes

Stretch #3: Downward Dog Calf Stretch

If you do any yoga, this pose will be quite familiar.

Downward Dog Calf Stretch

Downward Dog Calf Stretch

    • Bend forward and walk your hands 3-4 feet / 1-1.2 meters in front of your feet
    • Press your palms and all your fingers strongly into the floor
    • Keep your shoulders strong and press your shoulder blades firmly back and together
    • Keep your back flat
    • Push your tush up into the air
    • If your heels are on the ground, walk your hands forward slightly until your heels are a bit off the ground

This is downward dog pose.  Now, lift your right foot and tuck it behind your left ankle.  This will put more stretch into your left leg.  Again, you can do both straight-leg and bent-leg versions:

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Leg Straight (Calf Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

Knee Bent (Achilles Stretch)

[Straight + Bent] x 2 legs = 1:20 + positioning time = 2 minutes

You could probably do the step stretch while eating peanut butter & Nutella off a spoon.  I wouldn't really know, though...

You could probably do the step stretch while eating peanut butter & Nutella off a spoon. I wouldn’t really know, though…

Even if you take a few seconds to rest between stretches, you can still do this routine in less than 10 minutes.  If you are using it as a preventative measure, once a day should be sufficient, most likely after the day’s workout.  However, if you are having foot or leg issues that warrant extra stretching, then 2-3 times per day is preferable. Consider tossing it into your schedule during “listening times”: While your kids are telling you about their school day, while you’re watching TV at night, or even while listening to voice-mail at the office in the morning.

Teaser photo, from Sunday's race.

Teaser race pic

I usually avoid stretching when I first roll out of bed, but other than that, any time during the day is fine.  Just listen to your body and don’t push too hard – particularly on the Achilles stretches.  Just because a STRETCH is good, doesn’t mean that MORE STRETCH is better.

And there you have it, folks.  Your calves and Achilles are stretched.  Once I have some good (or, at least, better) photos, we’ll take a look at how you can massage these areas using The Stick and a foam roller.  Also coming up soon: race report from this weekend, and plantar fasciitis updates.  Hurry back, I miss you already!

Did I leave out your favorite calf stretch?  Tell me about it!!!

Have a stretching question?  Ask me!!!
[One of my hobbies is “finding the perfect stretch for thaaaaat *points* muscle”.  The weirder the spot, the greater the challenge!]

*I have a PhD in Biochemistry and am an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  What I describe here has worked well for me, and my clients.  But I am not a medical doctor, nor do I have a degree in physical therapy. Please consult the appropriate specialists for a specific consultation and treatment plan.

22 thoughts on “Stretch Those Calves!

  1. Tamar

    Really? You want to find a stretch for a weird spot?
    I always have huge amounts of tightness between and under my shoulder blades. It’s really hard to work out a knot that’s under a plate of bone…….

    Reply
    1. erica prier

      Do you do any yoga? I find that downward dog and the sun salutations are really great when I pull muscles in my neck and shoulder area so maybe it would work with tightness as well? Holly might know the more official names to the poses as it’s been a while since I’ve done them.

      Reply
  2. Amy Z

    Hip Stretches are my favorite! My calves rarely get sore anymore (knock on wood) so I don’t stretch them in the same way I used to. Now I focus a lot on my glutes (piriformis!) and hips. I do love a good stretch!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Ooooh yes, hip stretches. That was where I spent *most* of my time before this PF episode. I think the hips might require a few posts. Interestingly (and this makes physiological sense), I am most often telling the MEN to stretch their calves, and the WOMEN to stretch their hips. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Megan R

    Hey Holly! Quick question for you. I usually do one of the three of these stretches. What is the benefit of doing all three? Love your blog 🙂

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Ah – great question! I will expand on this in another post, but basically – if you don’t have issues with your calves, and have one stretch that you like – you can just stick with that, no problem. I provide a few options because: (1) people with tight calves may need more stretching, and (2) because not every stretch will work for every person. Providing a few stretches at a time can help people find the one that works best.

      And Meg…thanks for stopping by and reading! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Kristen L

    Like Amy Z said, I usually stretch my hips more than my calves. Thanks for the reminder to get in lots of regular stretching though — I’m focusing on that this week since I have a race this coming weekend.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      For a female without calf issues, that’s probably a good use of your time! 🙂

      Hope you’re getting pumped for your races – can’t wait to see you kill those halfs! (halves?) =)

      Reply
  5. Jean

    Yes, agreed, throw some hip stretches our way, please!

    What a wonderful half-picture. I’ll be interested to hear how the race went!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Working on the report now! And I’m glad the photographer snapped that part of me – my left side really IS my better side. Why do you think I demonstrated all the stretches on the left? 😉

      Reply
  6. Allison

    Ok don’t hate me, but I never stretch. I know I know it’s so bad, but I am always in such a rush, that I never stretch.
    I need to do this. I promise I will stretch after my run tonight.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hahaha. Nah, I don’t hate you – but I advocate stretching for everyone. Some people do tend to have looser bodies overall, or participate in other sports/activities that keep them loose. But aside from keeping us limber and decreasing injuries, I think stretching also helps people stay in touch with their bodies, and makes it easier/faster to identify when something is weird/not quite right.

      If you’re having trouble sticking to a stretching regimen, I suggest writing down 5-6 different stretches (that target different muscle groups). Leave that note at your front door, with a stopwatch. As soon as you get back, spend 5 minutes stretching, with the note to remind you, if you get distracted. Boom – done! Good luck; let me know how it goes!

      Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Well…pilates will definitely help with strength, but it’s not a stretching-focused workout. So you may still have to put in some stretching time. Already dreaming up a few hip-stretching posts!!! 🙂

      PS Thanks for stopping by!!

      Reply
  7. Kate

    Gotta say, I’m loving that ladder pose. It looks satisfying!

    Can you find me the world’s most effective yet pain-free hip flexor stretch? Awesome, thanks!

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Welll…..I can put together a series of hip flexor stretches. They won’t be PAINFUL, per se – but they’ll probably be uncomfortable. Can we compromise with that? 🙂

      Reply
  8. Janet

    For hip flexors; some of my favorite yoga poses do the trick; pigeon pose and thread the needle. I find myself stretching at the oddest times, while talking to someone I will just do a quad stretch, or throw my leg up on the desk and stretch my hams. I am sure they think I am weird…
    Holly, I love this blog and am happy to have found it. You were such a great NoBo coach!!! I am the one who had stress fracture in fibula followed by stress fracture in metatarsals, just like you. Hope you have been healthy, and get rid of that darned PF soon.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hi Janet! Welcome – Thanks for stopping by. [And of course I remember you, and your collection of stress fractures. Hope that’s long in the past, now!]

      Stretch proudly, any time! I used to do the same at my lab bench – took awhile for my labmates to get used to. 🙂 Now, my favorite place is on an escalator (there are tons in Singapore)!

      Reply
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