Why Stretching Your Calves Isn’t Always the Answer
We have all had that moment. Maybe it is after you get out of bed in the morning. Maybe it is after a ten mile tune up before Grandma’s Marathon. Maybe it is out of the blue. It’s that feeling when you take a couple steps and you just wonder “Why are my calves so tight?” You stretch them seemingly all day and get no result. Or it goes away for a couple days and always seems to come back regardless of how much you passively stretch them. Although sometimes you may need passive stretching, there can be a host of reasons you perceive this “tightness”. Let’s dive in and help those calves.
One reason a muscle might feel tight is that it is a tissue length issue, and passive stretching would benefit you in this case. This is commonly seen in a post-surgical candidate that had a rotator cuff repair or total knee replacement. The tissue is physically limited due to scar tissue and needs constant tension to address it. The problem most people have is they don’t stretch it long enough. You need 3-5 minutes of stretching daily for up to 10-12 weeks to see change. 30 seconds every other day won’t cut it. The problem with always stretching everything is that you can make some situations worse, as we will see with a joint stiffness issue next.
Sometimes the tightness factor doesn’t come from a muscle length issue and is in fact the joint that needs to be moved more often. In order to determine the difference between these two, I would highly recommend finding a good orthopedic physical therapist to guide you in this decision. Passive stretching can make your ankle or calf worse if it is really an ankle joint problem. The tibia bone, the fibula bone and the talus bone need to roll and glide well on each other for optimal ankle function. Doing some home self-mobilizations will help address these issues. Again, find a good PT to help you address these issues.
A third reason for why your ankle might feel tight is the fascial mobility lining the muscles of the ankle might need slide well enough to give you a smooth transition with walking or activities. This might feel like you have some “knots” in your calf. This issue will be address with a lacrosse ball or foam roller. A common misconception is that this is breaking up scar tissue. There is no evidence this is actually happening. A better way to think about it is the input from the roller is telling your nervous system to calm down a little bit to allow your calf to function. Our calves typically get overworked because we sit too often and they take over the role of the glutes in control the foot. Moving more often throughout the day and adding in some foam rolling will make a big difference in this case.
A final reason for why you might feel tight is that your nervous system isn’t comfortable with the movement you are doing, whether that is due to weakness or feeling of instability. Dynamic movement can be scary to a brain that is wired to sit for 8 hours a day. The brain needs a little warm-up period for times like this. A dynamic warm-up before a run or pick-up basketball game can allow your brain to calm down a little bit and reduce that feeling of tightness.
The best way to address any these reasons for tightness is to find a physical therapist that you get along with in pursuing your goals. Physical therapists are trained to help people not only recover from injury put to optimize their performance. Get moving and take care of your body!
Help in writing this article goes to Nick St. Louis and Mike Gauvreau, two physical therapists in Ottawa that have helped expose me to the best parts of being a PT.
Credit additionally goes to Jay Dicharry and his book “Running Rewired” for address musculoskeletal dysfunctions. HIGHLY recommend this book for avid runners.
Tom Broback, DPT, CSCS
Facebook: Tom Broback, DPT