Calves are often an afterthought compared to other muscles of the body—until they tighten up and result in nagging tension and pain. “As an athletic trainer and fitness professional, understanding proper human movement is essential in creating programming that first reduces the chance of overuse and non-contact injuries, and then allows for improvement in athletic performance,” Marty Miller, Technogym USA director of education and training, who holds a master’s degree in exercise science and injury prevention and a doctorate degree in health sciences, explains to Byrdie. “When examining human movement, it is extremely common for individuals to have tight calves, and the frequency only increases within the running community due to the nature of the sport.”
Unfortunately, having tight calves isn’t just uncomfortable—it can lead to altered joint motion of not only the foot and ankle but can also create improper joint motions of the knee and the hip. “This is a significant contributor to the most common injuries seen in runners, such as Achilles' tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and anterior knee pain just to name a few,” he points out.
Here are 12 expert-endorsed methods to release calf tension.
Try This Internal and External Ankle Stretch
While the muscle most commonly associated with the calf muscle is the gastrocnemius, there is another very important muscle that is often overlooked and key to successful running, Mara Kimowitz, physical therapist and owner StretchSource, points out. “The soleus is a small muscle that runs from the knee to the ankle and is hidden underneath the larger gastrocnemius. The soleus muscle is primarily used for pushing off the ground while running and providing power.” She suggests this internal and external ankle stretch, which will help with ankle, foot, and knee recovery for runners and stretch the soleus. Start by standing facing a wall with your feet together. Take your right foot back about two feet away from the wall. Internally rotate your right toes inward toward the left foot. Keep the right heel down as you bend your left knee until you feel a stretch. Hold the stretch for 15–30 seconds. Repeat knee bend with back foot rotated externally away. Repeat internal and external ankle stretch on both sides.
Foam Roll the Calf Complex
Miller explains that foam rolling should be your go-to method for calf relief, as it “helps to increase circulation to the muscle while simultaneously getting restricted or overactive tissue to relax."
Or, Use a Ball Instead
Elizabeth Gardner, MD, Yale Medicine sports medicine doctor in the department of orthopaedics & rehabilitation, prefers using a lacrosse ball or softball instead of a foam roller. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Put the ball under your calf, about midway between your knee and your ankle. Gently move your leg side to side to massage the muscles. Gradually allow the ball to move up and down your leg, in order to reach all aspects of the muscle. “You can determine how deep the massage reaches by putting more or less downward pressure on your leg. If you find any tight or sore spots, spend more time in this area,” she advises.
Do the Wall Calf Stretch
“The wall calf stretch is the most classic stretch, and still one of the best, not to mention you can do it almost anywhere,” notes Gardner. Standing about one to two feet away from a wall, step on any raised object on the ground. Step forward with the right foot such that your toe is on the wall and your heel is firmly on the ground. “You may support yourself on the wall if necessary,” she suggests. Gently lean toward the wall until you feel a stretch through the back of your leg. Be sure to hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other leg.
Or, Try the Elevated Heel Drop Stretch
Per Gardner, the elevated heel drop stretch is an advanced version of the wall stretch. Here you should stand with both feet on a flat, secure, elevated surface, such as a stair or a yoga block. “It is helpful to have a wall or other support object nearby to hold onto,” she explains. Stand with your heels hanging off the back edge. Without losing your balance, let your heel drop by shifting your weight backwards, until you feel a good stretch. “Changing the angle of the foot, either internally or externally rotated, can help to stretch other areas of the calf; performing this exercise with slightly bent knees is another variation,” she adds. As with all stretches, be sure to hold this for at least 30 seconds and perform on both sides.
Stretch the Calf Complex
If you don’t have a foam roller, Miller suggests stretching the calf for a minimum of 20–30 seconds, which “allows the muscle to return to its normal length, so the proper biomechanics of the ankle can be reestablished.”
Strengthen Your Anterior Tibialis Muscle
The anterior tibialis muscle is the muscle on the front of the shin, which pulls the ankle toward the shin, explains Miller. “When the calf complex is tight, this will directly create a weakness in the anterior tibialis muscle,” he says. “By strengthening the anterior tibialis, the foot will now be able to decelerate the foot at heel strike, preventing unnecessary stress through the lower extremity.”
Strengthen the Hip and Core
“The hip and core help to control the pelvis as well as the entire lower extremity as the leg meets the ground,” Miller states. “If the core is unstable and the pelvis does not function properly, there will be a marked increase in the stress in the lower extremities.”
Use Your Own Body Weight
Gail Barranda Rivas, personal trainer and Pilates instructor at THE WELL New York, suggests doing the following body-weight exercise. Start by getting into a quadruped position, placing your palms underneath the shoulders, knees underneath the hips, and extending one leg back, pressing the ball of the foot hard against the floor to push the heel back. “It helps if you're on a grippy mat so your foot doesn't slip back,” she says. Engage your upper back muscles and tuck your pelvis in slightly, so you're also firing up your core, upper back, and hamstrings. “Slowly rock back and forth on the ball of the foot (also rotating the ankle in a circle), each time trying to drive the heel further and further back.” Switch and do the same thing on the other side.
Use a Theraband or Stretch Strap
Rivas also suggests using either a Theraband or stretch strap, then following these instructions. Lie on your back and place the band underneath the arch of one foot, while keeping the other knee bent. Loop your hands firmly around the band and drive the heel straight up to the ceiling. Soften the knee slightly and then see if you can lengthen the leg a bit more. Try to keep the lower back down on the mat as you do this and you'll also get a nice hamstring stretch as well (everything is connected). Rotate the foot in the band to also find some mobility in the ankles. “Lack of mobility in the ankles is part of the reason why the calves get tight,” she points out. Switch and do the same thing on the other side.
Get a Percussion Massage With the Hypervolt
If it is in your budget, Rivas suggests splurging on the Hyperice Hypervolt, a highly rated percussion massager that THE WELL New York uses as a treatment tool. Then, follow these instructions: In a tall seated position, cross one leg over the opposite thigh. Place the Hypervolt on a comfortable setting (“I like setting 2,” Rivas says) and start running the Hypervolt on the inside of the calf. Take some time to do this with both a pointed and flexed foot for about 5–10 seconds and then relax the foot and continue. You'll then stand and put your foot on top of a chair or sofa and run the Hypervolt along the outside of the calf. Again, take a few seconds massaging this area with a pointed foot, a flexed foot, and in a relaxed position. Lift heel and work on the back of the meaty back part of the calf. Switch and do the same thing on the other side.
Try Downward Dog
Gardner maintains that yogis are well aware that the popular position, downward dog, is a great calf stretch. Start in a high plank position, with your hands positioned under your shoulders. Pushing through your palms, shift your weight backwards into your legs to bring your buttocks up toward the ceiling. Once in this inverted-V position, now press your heels into the ground. “You should feel a stretch in your calves with this position,” she says. “In order to stretch the lower part of your muscle, you can bend your knees slightly.”
Hein T, Janssen P, Wagner-Fritz U, Haupt G, Grau S. Prospective analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors on the development of Achilles tendon pain in runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2013;24(3):e201-e212. doi:10.1111/sms.12137