Your calf muscles aren’t just for vanity. Here’s why strengthening and stretching them is so important.
The lower body gets a lot of attention during our training. Rightly so – it’s responsible for keeping everything else upright, and we use our legs when we walk, run, jump, squat, dance and, well, move.
But alongside your hamstrings and quads, it’s easy to forget to train your calves. I’m guilty of it – and have had many injuries and niggles attributed to weak, tight calves. So has Strong Women’s editor, Miranda Larbi, who was told she has legs “like triangles” by a physiotherapist.
“I’ve had chronic tendonitis in my Achilles for years and I couldn’t understand it,” she explains. “I really make an effort to strength train and stretch around my runs. But when I finally limped to the physio, he said that while my glutes and quads were really powerful, nothing was happening in the calves – which is odd, given that I tend to run on my toes. I always thought I had super strong calves!”
“If you’re someone who is active, you need to futureproof your calves,” says Tim Kayode, performance therapist and founder of the Myoset clinic. “One of the main jobs of the muscle group is to absorb loads, when you jump, step, run, or do anything that makes impact with the floor. Essentially, it acts as a support system for your lower extremity.” Is it any wonder that they get so aggravated then?
Building strength and reducing tension in the area is clearly essential, not just to “help you become faster, jump higher and keep your pace,” but to reduce your rate of injury, Kayode explains.
Why do you get calf pain?
The calves as we know them are made up of two different muscles:
This is the bulk of your calf, which is found slightly higher up the leg. The gastrocnemius is quite a large muscle and a type two muscle fibre. “That means it’s fast-twitch, so it’s used for speed and short sharp bursts of movement – for example, in HIIT workouts,” Kayode explains.
This is the lower end of your calf, closest to your Achilles. It’s the smaller of the two muscles and attached to your tibia, which is your shin bone. “For that reason, it’s often the main cause of shin pain. When a patient complains about shin splints, the first thing I’m going to do is look at their calf,” explains Kayode.
The soleus is a type one muscle fibre – which is a slow-twitch muscle. “That means it’s used for endurance work, such as your longer distance, slower tempo workouts.”
As well as shin splints, many Achilles issues are related to the calves. “Because your Achilles tendon attaches the gastrocnemius to the soleus, any tightness or weakness in the calf muscles can result in Achilles injuries. They’re one of the most painful and annoying injuries to have,” says Kayode.
And pain can travel further up: “Injuries in your lower extremities starts to affect the upper half of the body. Anything that happens to your feet and ankles then start to affect your knees, which then in turn starts to affect the hips, the lower back, and it all trickles upwards.”
Often, one of the issues with the calves is that these muscles are imbalanced from our preference for a certain style of training. “It means one of the muscles is overloaded and not supported. So many injuries are from overworking a muscle, and it’s highly probable that’s combined with not stretching enough,” says Kayode.
“There are several steps that come before an injury – the actual injury is the last step. Prior to that, we can stretch, improve mobility and keeping them strong keeping them stable.”
How to strengthen your calves
These are the classic exercise, but don’t need to be done in a gym. “Fit these into your routine by doing them for two minutes every day while brushing your teeth,” says Kayode.
Eccentric calf raises
This is all about mixing up the tempo of your usual calf raise to build strength. Place a step or a box on the floor and stand on the very edge, so your heels are hanging off the end. Raise up at a normal tempo, but lower down really slowly and as low as your heels can go.
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Incorporate this into your workout by adding in 10 metre walks on your toes. When you feel confident and comfortable, you can also hold dumbbells to add more load through the lower leg.
Isometric ball steps
“I like to do this with a lot of the athletes that I work with because isometric moves are important, but neglected,,” says Kayode. Place a football against a wall and stand on it with one leg – holding the wall for stability. Press down into the ball and hold that for seven to 10 seconds as an isometric hold, then relax and repeat five to 10 times.
How to stretch your calves
Elevated toe stretch
Stand with your feet facing a step and place the toes of one foot on the elevated surface. Keep the knee straight and lean forwards to stretch into both of the muscles in the calf. “This stretches out all of the tissue on the back of the lower leg,” says Kayode.
Standing bent leg stretch
Stand facing a wall, your feet a few steps away, and place your hands against it at shoulder height. Step one foot forwards so your toes touch the wall and then bend your front knee to try and get it to touch the wall, while the other leg stays straight. You’ll feel the stretch through both of the legs.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).