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. 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.
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 you.
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.
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:
- There are two options for the setup! First, I show an option for using instead the wall as a support for your foot. Second, I show a squatting down on the floor version. Choose whichever setup option suits you best.
- 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.
- Increase the amount of force you use to act as if you’re pressing the gas pedal of a car down, and when you get to a 6 out of 10 in intensity, hold that contraction and intensity for 10 seconds. Don’t allow any part of your knee, lower leg, or foot to move. This is an isometric muscle contraction, which means ‘no motion’.
- After that, slowly let go of that muscle contraction you were just doing and begin contracting your shin muscles to act as if you’re pulling your toes and top of foot up towards your shin.
- Increase the amount of force you use to act as if you’re pulling your top of your foot to your shin, and when you get to a 6 out of 10 in intensity, hold that contraction and intensity for 10 seconds. Don’t allow any part of your knee, lower leg, or foot to move. This is an isometric muscle contraction, which means ‘no motion’.
- Once the 10 seconds have 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
You need to inform your muscles about how much they should be able to move and flex. You need to inform them about how they should adapt as the cells that make them up turn over and new ones replace them. The only way you can do that is by signaling to them through your actions so that your body can make the response 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!