6 Reasons to stretch your calf muscles


6 Reasons to stretch your calf muscles

There’s a good bet that most of us tend to neglect our calf muscles.  We’re so busy focusing on stretching our back or arms but forget how important our calves are for a variety of functions.

To understand why our calves should get proper time and attention when stretching, it’s good to understand what muscles make up this area of our bodies. Our calves consist of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is a heart-shaped muscle making up the bulk of your calf and which crosses the knee.  The soleus is a fan-shaped muscle lying beneath the gastrocnemius and which crosses the ankle. The ends of the gastrocnemius and soleus tendons fuse in the lower part of the leg as the Achilles tendon.

The two muscles that make up the calf have a main function to plantarflex the foot propelling the body forward during walking, running, and jumping. Excessively tight calf muscles can lead to a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and can pose a danger to athletes. Women, who regularly wear high heeled shoes, run the risk of shortening their calf muscles. When they are not stretched out, these muscles will tighten, constricting the range of movement at the ankle. 

This is why stretching out our calves every day should be a priority - we need them in good working order for daily activity.  In addition, to prevent painful and disabling complications from unstretched calf muscles, here are 6 reasons to regularly stretch them out:

1.  Reduces frequency of leg cramps

Experiencing leg cramps, especially at night while sleeping, is never pleasant. If you are someone who is very physically active but do not take the time to stretch your calves, they can become excessively tight from exercise and may lock up. When you practice stretching them, this promotes good blood flow and can reduce leg cramps.  Be sure to also drink at least 6-8 cups of water each day.

2.  Prevents Achilles tendonitis

Achilles tendonitis is directly related to tight Achilles tendons.  What can help prevent this is to do dynamic stretching  which helps the calf muscle warm up and increases the range of motion around the joint – static stretching helps cool them down. Dynamic stretching involves performing low-impact, light effort exercises such as jumping rope or jogging in place.  Static stretching is elongating a muscle by holding it up to 30 seconds.

3. Improves circulation to the lower extremities

Stretching out your calf muscles promotes circulation to your lower legs which can help reduce any swelling and any occurrence of blood clots. By increasing the amount of oxygenated blood reaching your feet and ankles, this can help reduce minor joint pain and aid in a quicker recovery between workouts or post injury.

4. Prevents plantar fasciitis

A condition called plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain.  The planta fascia is the flat band of tissue (ligament) that connects your heel bone to your toes and normally acts as a shock absorber supporting the arch of your foot.   But if the plantar fascia is strained from repeated stress this can lead to small tears resulting in inflammation in the tissue where it becomes weak, swollen, and irritated or inflamed. If your calf muscles have tightened and become unflexible, this can lead to increased tension on the plantar fascia which is a major underlying problem leading to plantar fasciitis.

5.  Prevents shin splints

Shin splints is pain caused by overuse along the shinbone, the large front bone in the lower leg. The cause is stress on your shinbone and the connective tissues that attach muscles to your bones that get inflamed and painful. There can be several causes of shin splints such as flat feet, shoes that don’t fit well or provide good support or working out without warmup or cooldown stretches. Another cause can be from too tight of calf muscles. When your calves are unstretched and tight behind the leg, the shin muscles in front of the leg are overworked to compensate. This is why calf stretches are a primary way to prevent shin splints.

6.  To increase the range of motion

Think of your calf muscles as lever arms for your entire body. The more flexible they are, the more movement they have.  Keeping your calves flexible helps make them more powerful and improves your ability to walk, bend, twist, and climb stairs.

Smart moves for stronger calves

To get your calf muscles in tip top shape, it’s important to regularly stretch and strengthen them.  Here are some exercises that will not only stretch and strengthen your calves to protect against lower leg injuries but also to add definition to them. 

·      Seated calf raises – Sit on a chair or bench with feet flat on the floor. Lift your right heel as high as you can, pressing toes into the floor and flexing your calf muscles, then slowly lower your heel down. Do this 12 to 15 times, then repeat with your left heel. Build to two sets of 15 reps each leg.

·      Standing calf raises – Stand behind a sturdy chair, holding it for balance if necessary. With feet shoulder width apart, slowly rise up on your toes as you tighten your abs.  Keep your back and knees straight. Hold briefly, then slowly lower heels to the floor. Build up to two sets of 12 to 15 reps.

·      Wall stretch for calves – Stand near a wall with one foot in front of the other, front knee slightly bent. Place hands on the wall for support. Keep your back knee straight, your heel on the ground, and lean toward the wall. Feel the stretch all along the calf of your back leg. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.

·      Advanced calf stretch – Stand on a step.  Place the ball of your foot on the edge of the step.  Your help should be off the step. Slowly drop your heel down as you carry weight through the leg. You may hold onto something, like a banister or the wall as you lower. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.