If you are a runner, cyclist or just spend a fair amount of time sat down, chances are you have tighter calf muscles than you’d like. Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned runner or cyclist or new to either discipline, tight calves can kick in quickly from being continually worked. The calves, built up of the gastrocnemius and soleus, are a little tricky to reach with most stretches, often being overlooked in favour of quad and hamstring stretches. Tight calves can stop you from distributing weight properly, and can result in ankle, foot, shin and knee pain.
I’ve picked out three of my favourite poses for releasing tightness in the calf muscles. If strengthening the calves is part of your programming, then do this afterwards, or on a different day to when you are training your lower legs. Whilst light mobility work can be helpful pre strength training, deeper stretching will make it harder to engage your muscles and can cause a lack of the stability that you need for building strength. For runners and cyclists, dynamic versions of these stretches can be helpful as part of your warm up, but save the longer holds until afterwards.
In yoga, we work with the breath, and I’d suggest holding each of these poses for five breaths. Slowing your inhales and exhales is a key part of facilitating poses like these, as it helps to avoid, or overcome, your stretch reflex. This is where the body reacts to a strong or sudden stretch by “locking” out the connective tissue between muscles fibres, preventing you from stretching deeper. Slow, controlled exhales sends a signal to the brain that you are not in danger, and the muscles will release more. If you struggle with counting the breath, see if you can work your way up to a minute in each pose.
Downward dog calf stretch
This pose is one of my favourites for getting the calf muscles in as deep or gentle way as I’d like. From downward dog, lift the right foot and place the toes back down either directly behind, or on the left heel. Press the fingers firmly into the mat to reach all the way down the left leg. Downward dog too much? From all fours, extend the right leg back, toes on the ground, and press the heel into an imaginary wall behind you. Swap sides.
Step forward from your downward dog to reach the right foot between the hands. Drop onto the back knee, and move the hips back as you partly straighten the front leg. To fine-tune this into you calves, really flex the foot to reach the toes up into the air. You can even do this pose using a wall to press the toes upwards.
From standing, step back approximately a meter, turning the back foot out slightly. Square your hips -I find putting your hands on your hips helps you to visualise, and squeezing the inner thighs together brings the back hip forward. Hinge forward from the hip to come into a forward fold over the front leg. To bring the stretch from the hamstring and more into the calf muscles, lift the toes. If needed, micro-bend the front leg to avoid hyperextending the knee.