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Calf stretching can improve movement quality and prevent injury.
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Calf flexibility is key to healthy foot and ankle function, solid sports performance and injury prevention. Minus that flexibility, you're more susceptible to a host of conditions, including back, hip and foot pain. If your calves are tight from overuse, commit to stretching them most days of the week. Experiment to discover which stretches work best for you or rotate among 10 effective stretches to keep your calf routine fresh.
Take a Stand
Try one of four standing stretches after a set of calf raises, while talking on the phone at work or when you're waiting for the kettle to boil. The classic wall stretch involves resting your hands against a wall while pressing your back heel toward the floor. Alternatively, place both feet together, lean toward a wall and rock back on your heels, drawing your forefeet toward your shins. Or, flex one foot, positioning the heel near the base of a wall and resting the forefoot on the wall; straighten your knees and shift your weight slightly forward to lengthen the calf. Finally, stand with one leg extended in front of you, heel resting on the floor and foot flexed. Bending the supporting leg slightly, rest your hands on your thigh and hinge forward slightly from your hips until you feel tension in the calf.
Hit the Floor
At the gym, after a run or while relaxing in front of the TV, grab a mat or towel for three effective floor stretches. The basic sit-and-reach stretch involves sitting with your legs extended in front of you, flexing your feet toward your shins and gliding your hands along your thighs until you feel tension in the calves. You'll likely feel a stretch in your hamstrings and behind your knees, as well. Alternatively, stretch your calves from a pike position -- what yoga enthusiasts refer to as downward dog. Starting on your hands and knees, straighten your knees, move your hips and buttocks upward and press your palms and heels into the floor. For a dynamic stretch, start in the same pike position but curl one foot behind the other ankle. From there, repeatedly raise and lower the supporting heel.
Tools of the Trade
Each of the final three stretches requires a basic stretch tool. The step stretch involves standing with your forefeet on the edge of a raised platform -- such as an aerobic or stair step -- and slowly lowering one heel at a time toward the floor. Alternatively, roll up a hand towel or use a necktie, dog leash or resistance band as a stretch strap. Sitting in a chair or on the floor, extend one leg in front of you with the foot flexed and loop the strap around the sole of the foot; gently pull back on the ends of the towel until you feel light tension in the calf. Finally, if you have access to a specially designed slant board or half foam roller, wedge it under your forefeet, relax and hold the position as your calves gently lengthen.
Be Safe, Be Effective
Whatever exercises you use, recalling a few basic principles will help you get more from the stretch. Warm up briefly before you stretch to increase circulation to your lower legs and raise muscle tissue temperature. Keeping the working leg straight generally targets the superficial gastrocnemius muscle, while bending it targets the deeper soleus. In addition, changing the orientation of your working leg -- rotating it inward or outward at the hip -- targets different calf muscle fibers. For static stretches, move into the stretch position carefully and hold for up to 30 seconds without bouncing, jerking or using force. Repeat a stretch up to four times per side and work both legs equally even if one calf seems tighter. For dynamic stretches, maintain total control and keep your movements fluid to avoid injury.