Tight Calves: Why, How, & What To Do With Them

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feet

The left photo of a client’s attempt at active dorsiflexion (meaning, as far as she can pull her foot back toward her head without using external support to get it to go farther). In the right photo is my foot demonstrating my current active dorsiflexion.

I placed the dotted line from the center of the heel up through the edge of the ball of the foot to show the difference in angles of our foot to our calves. I think the variance between our two feet is clear. I have the ability to dorsiflex (pull my foot back) more than my client can. This is because I have greater mobility in my calves & heel cords than she does.

I discussed a bit about this client’s missing plantar flexion (toe point forward) on my Facebook page with the main takeaway being that:

Where one area is lacking, somewhere else will always try to make up for it.

Her skeleton is capable of flexing her ankle more, but it can’t.

If she were just a skeleton, aside from being slightly creepy yet totally badass for being my first skeleton client, she’d be able to bend her ankle at least as much as I am bending mine.

But she’s got skin, connective tissue, muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are negatively affecting her ability to do so. It’s not that the tissue being there is the problem.

It’s how the tissue is currently operating that is causing the limitation in her ankle.

Years (decades?) of shortened ankle range of motion [via positive heeled shoes, including running shoes, sitting a lot and not having an active stretching protocol to undo each day of muscular rigidity] has led to severely shortened and calcified calf muscles. Essentially, the muscle is no longer this supple, pliable, move-able thing that is capable of lengthening and shortening as needed. It is short. That’s it.

Tight Calves…So What?

Think of the joint & appendage these short, stiff, calf muscles are connected to – the foot and ankle (& knee, but we’re focusing on the lowest of appendages today). They are two parts of the body that must have mobility to function correctly.

Here’s an example to showcase this: look at your hand & wrist. Pretend like you’re drumming your fingers on the table. Now make a fist & using your wrist joint, make circles with your fists. See all that movement? That’s similar to how much your ankles & feet are meant to have.

When your calf muscles become so shortened that you lose many degrees of dorsiflexion and plantarflexion (pulling the foot back toward you and pointing the foot away from you), the brain goes elsewhere to get the movement your calves & feet should be doing. In many cases, that ‘somewhere’ is the muscles on the front of the shin, using the anterior tib & extensors to pull the foot up, HARD.

What normally is a fairly easy relationship between the calf muscles lengthening as the shin muscles flex to pull the foot up becomes like a resistant toddler who does NOT want to leave the beach. That toddler’s resistance is this client’s shortened calf muscle.

The shin muscles must fire hard to try to get that foot up in time before the leg comes all the way through the swing phase of the gait.

What develops is a nasty little compensatory pattern where the shin muscles are being asked to do significantly more work than they were normally asked to do in a simple task like walking or running. Welcome to some kind of ‘-itis’ issue in your shin/top of foot.

That’s Fun But This Is More Fun

And as fun as all that sounds, an even more popular place for the brain to go for function when it isn’t getting it from the calves, is the plantar fascia. As I discussed in this post, the plantar fascia acts as a tie rod, undergoing tension when you load the body. But just because it bears tension when you load your body does not mean it should bear ALL the load.

When the calves are excessively shortened, the body shifts its weight distribution forward over the mid-foot instead of over the heel as it was designed. Katy Bowman made a fantastic picture showcasing this shift:

bowman p.fascia loading

 

When this goes on for long enough, the plantar fascia will harden and eventually calcify, meaning bye-bye suppleness and hello rigid piece of tissue that is now being loaded with no real way to displace that load through the rest of the foot.
(Sidenote: this can also be a culprit behind stress fractures on the 2nd or 3rd ball joint and navicular bone of the foot. Improper loading of the foot and its tissues [plantar fascia, et al], puts a LOT more load on the bones in the front of the foot, and most endurance athletes are putting some seriously large volume on their legs over the span of a year, let alone a lifetime.)

Now, I don’t ask my clients to match my range of motion, and I don’t have a set target that we’re aiming at. “Better than right now. “That’s what I ask of my folks, and what I’d ask of you. Besides, there is not one ‘exclusive ideal’ level of mobility. Nor is there an ideal level of strength, nor an ideal amount of chocolate. Because it depends on the situation YO*. *There is however, an ideal amount of coffee, and it is always “more.”

Fix It.

There are signals from your body that you may be on a path toward increased injury risk if you don’t change something. Having the kind of active flexibility my client has in the photo puts her at an increased risk of foot, ankle, calf, and shin issues – not to mention some increased potential for hip issues down the line (more on that topic another day) if she doesn’t improve it.

If your ankle dorsiflexion is stinky-poo, get to work on it:

– Start stretching your calves every day. Many times per day. 60sec of deep stretching (not the “I feel it a bit, I’m just gonna hang here” kind of stretching…go for deep, uncomfortable-but not painful!-stretching). The ‘foot up against a wall’ stretch is an easy one.

– Get out of your positive-heeled shoes. Including your running shoes. But do NOT go cold turkey down to zero-drop shoes! I took 6 months to train my feet to go from typical positive-heeled shoes down to barefoot-shoes. Please let me help you if you want to make this transition but don’t want to hurt yourself doing it! Drop me a line on my Contact Page and we can discuss how to make the transition safely and intelligently.

– Walk around barefoot every single day. You were born capable of doing this. You should not die incapable of it. Start easy, on soft surfaces for a few minutes per day if it hurts. Work up to walking on a variety of surfaces barefoot. Grass. Rocks. Concrete. All of it.

– Suck it up and start rolling your foot on a golf ball. Your plantar fascia and supporting players under your foot will thank you.

– Check out this video that I made for online strength coaching clients showing the calf stretch I learned from Katy Bowman & then get to doing what I show here:

 

Need help with your ankle mobility? Or with creating better function anywhere in your body? I work with clients one-on-one on this stuff. In-person coaching is wait-listed at the mo, but online coaching has some room. If I should save some of that room for you, just let me know. We'll evaluate your current level of movement quality, and build a plan to make it better.

2 thoughts on “Tight Calves: Why, How, & What To Do With Them

  1. […] barber and the barbell Tight calves: Why, how, and what to do with them Strongman vs. CrossFit Five things to do before bed that will jump start tomorrow Connecting […]

  2. […] sources: Runners Connect, Rhino Fitness, Fit For Real Life, Prostretch, Livestrong, […]

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