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

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feet

When you don’t have enough mobility in your ankles to walk, run, go up or down stairs, do activities, or play sports – you might start experiencing aches or pains in your calves.

Tight calves, and foot and ankle issues can range from feeling uncomfortable to being downright painful, and this article will help you understand why tightness in the ankle and calves happen, plus what you can do about it.

Why are my calf muscles so tight?

Muscles can get tight or stiff-feeling for a number of reasons, but they all boil down to one simple equation: a signal coming into your body was responded to by your body. And that response was calf tightness. Let’s break it down…

There are external signals that your body responds to by making the calf muscles tighter. External signals are things that are outside of the body that have influence on things inside the body (like your calf muscles).

And there are internal signals that your body responds to by making your calf muscles tighter. Internal signals are things that are going on inside your body that have influence on how tight your calf muscles feel.

Shoes And Your Calves

One external signal that tells your calf muscles to shorten, and thus get tighter, is wearing heeled shoes. Whether it’s a high-heel shoe or a gym shoe that has a small heel on it, wearing this type of shoe raises your heel bone higher than your front of your foot.

Because of how the calf muscles attach from the foot to the knee, anytime you wear the shoe that raises your heel, the muscles of your calf are put in a shortened position. Over time, and with enough of that signal coming into your body, this becomes their default position and you feel like your calves have gotten tight and your ankles are immobile.

In order for your calves to stop responding to the heeled shoes, you need to stop wearing the heeled shoes. Or, radically increase the amount of mobility work you are doing to offset the signal that the heeled shoes are sending to your body.

Does Your Body Think It’s “Safe” To Make Your Calves Less Tight?

An internal signal that tells your calf muscles to shorten and become stiff is your nervous system – your brain, spinal cord, and nerves – not knowing that it is safe to enter greater ranges of motion at your ankle and knee.

Your nervous system is what oversees how much mobility you have access to. It decides how stiff your muscles will be. And it decides this based on what it deems ‘safe’ for you to enter. If your nervous system does not deem it ‘safe’ for you to enter a range of motion because you have not taught it otherwise, you will feel tightness or stiffness as your nervous system disallows the motion.

In order for your nervous system to understand how to access new ranges of motion with your calf muscles (and thus, your ankles and knees) safely and with control, you must teach it.

Should I stretch my calves?

Stretching is what is called a “passive input”. You are pulling the muscle into a longer position mechanically, similar to how you can stretch the collar of a t-shirt out by holding onto two parts of it and pulling them away from each other.

If you pull on the t-shirt long enough, the collar will be permanently stretched out. Unfortunately, this is not how your muscles work.

Stretching does not teach your nervous system how to maintain that new length. So stretching on its own is not the answer to your tight calves. 

In order to get your muscles to be less stiff and thus make your joints have more range of motion, you have to send active inputs to them. And you have to do it consistently.

An “active input” is when you generate a muscle contraction. By contracting the muscle, you are telling your nervous system that you know how to control the muscle in that position. In turn, your nervous system will start to ‘learn’ that the position is safe.

(This process is far more detailed than what I can fit into this blog post, but read this article on how your body develops different ranges of motion if you’re interested in learning more on this subject)

So instead of spending time on stretching alone, which will not make long-term lasting change to the tightness of your calves or the range of motion of your ankles, begin doing drills that incorporate active inputs.

Demo: An Active Input Drill
For Your Calves

In the video below (I promise, it’s a video) I am demonstrating an isometric contraction of my calf muscles while in a stretch position for them.

To do this drill:

  • Setup in whatever version of what I am demonstrating that you can, even if that’s by propping yourself up on a chair near you instead of curling down around your leg like I am.
  • Find the position of greatest stretch in your calf. Hold it for 30 seconds. Then slowly start pressing the bottom of your foot down into the ground as if you were pressing down a gas pedal. This is indicated by the yellow arrow.
  • The muscles doing this contraction are your calf muscles that were stretching previously. Feel how they are contracting and ramp up that contraction from ‘light’ to ‘moderate’ intensity. Hold the isometric contraction at that level for 10 seconds. The muscles working here are indicated by the green arrows.
  • Once time has elapsed, relax your muscles and see if you can lean further into the stretch you started this drill with. 

Next Steps To Relieve Your Calf Tightness

Your muscles need to be informed about how much they should be able to stretch and flex. They need to be informed about how they should adapt as the cells that make them up turn over and new ones replace them. And the only way they get informed about those things is by you telling them with the signals you send to help your body create the responses you desire.

Get a complete foot training program

I’ve helped hundreds of people heal their feet and undo the tightness in their calves for good. Now you can get those same drills and exercises in my easy-to-follow home program, Unbreakable Feet. So if you’ve got 5 minutes a day to help your calves, ankles, and feet, then you can do this program!

Go through your old injury history

Have you ever sprained your ankle? Broken a toe? Had to wear a brace on your leg or broken your leg and had a cast on it? These all can make your calf muscles shorten and feel tight.

Work with a coach or physio to help you rebuild any lost function that occurred due to these old injuries.

Work on the things that influence your calves

When you lose ankle range of motion, all of the soft tissues around the ankle and lower leg will compensate for the lacking mobility. And thus, the joints that these soft tissues attach to will begin to compensate as well.

Check out this case study of a student of mine who totally changed how his toes, feet, ankles, and lower legs, functioned!

feet that are caved in and the same feet seven months later, toned and stacked tall with no caving in

Click on Scott’s feet to read his story

 


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

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