When it comes to fitness, there’s one important aspect of any exercise regimen that tends to get overlooked: stretching.
Stretching reduces your risk of injury, primes your joints for a full range of motion and allows you to have your best possible workout, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In other words, stretching should be prioritised both before and after you exercise (though different stretches are ideal for different times — more on that in a moment).
While stretching is important for many parts of the body, the calf is an area that many people forget to stretch or warm up, which can lead to injuries like pulled or turn muscles, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon ruptures and more, according to Patrick Maloney, the lead athletic trainer at Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine in New Orleans.
Beyond that, calf muscles are important for running and any kind of sport that involves jumping, like basketball or tennis. Speaking to HuffPost, experts discussed why it’s necessary to stretch and strengthen your calves, as well as how to do so.
Maintaining calf flexibility and strength can prevent injury
“As far as why it’s important that people stretch their calf muscles, maintaining [a] good range of motion helps aid in the mechanics of your body,” said Maloney.
Stretching your calf muscles and maintaining a normal range of motion in the ankle joints can help support walking, jumping, hiking and most other things people do on their feet, he added.
“Having a good range of motion and a normal range of motion is pretty key to our basic movement patterns,” Maloney said.
Plus, having well-exercised calf muscles can protect the rest of your body, too.
“In the sports medicine world, we talk about the ‘kinetic chain,’ and every joint kind of has a relation to the other,” Maloney said. For example, if your hip flexors or heel cords are tight, you may experience lower back pain or another kind of musculoskeletal soreness.
Everybody’s different, Maloney stressed, so you can’t always attribute certain types of pain to muscle tightness, but it can be a contributing factor.
Your calves are naturally prone to tightness
According to Dr. Michael Fredericson, a professor of orthopaedic surgery at Stanford Medicine, any muscle that crosses two joints is more prone to tightness, and the gastrocnemius (or gastroc) muscle, which makes up part of the calf, crosses both the ankle and the knee.
“Because the gastroc, in particular, crosses two joints, any tightness can limit [your motion] at the ankle and at the knee,” Fredericson said.
So, it’s doubly important to loosen up and warm up your calves before exercising. This way, you’ll limit the risk of injury to your knee or ankle, Fredericson said.
What’s a healthy range of motion for calves?
“In the clinical setting, we use something called a goniometer” to measure calf flexibility, Maloney said, but it can also be done at home without a professional tool.
Ideal flexibility varies for men and women, but on average, he said, you want to be able to pull your foot up toward your body to around 20 degrees. “That’s considered normal,” Maloney said.
You should also be able to point your foot to about 65 degrees, he added.
These simple stretches can help
According to Maloney, a great and simple calf stretch is one you probably did in gym class as a kid. You get in a stride position, put your hands against the wall and lean forward while keeping both of your feet on the ground and shifting your weight forward. To take it a little further, you can “take the back leg and bend the knee so you’re squatting down a bit. ... You’re going to feel it a little lower,” Maloney said.
You can also pedal your feet as you do a downward-facing dog pose or try a towel calf stretch, sitting on the ground with your legs straight out and using a towel looped around your foot to gently pull it back.
Hold these stretches for about 30 seconds each.
Do dynamic stretches before working out and static stretches after
The stretches discussed so far are mostly static, meaning you hold them without adding any movement.
According to Fredericson, static stretches are best for after a workout. But before a workout, you’ll want to do a warmup of some kind, he said. This can involve dynamic exercise or dynamic stretching, both of which require movement.
Fredericson said you can do a few jumping drills to get a dynamic stretch. You could also try high knees exercises or even a running warmup, Maloney added. These dynamic movements are a good way to get your blood flowing before a workout begins.
To help prevent injury, it’s also important to regularly do calf raises as a dynamic stretch, Fredericson said. This way, you’re strengthening the muscles in addition to giving them a good stretch.
He recommended performing calf raises while standing on a step. This will allow you to lower your heel down below the step, stretching while also doing some strength-building work, he said.
Staying active is important, too
“Static stretching is great for improving length in the calf muscles,” Maloney said, but stretching alone cannot provide your body with the range of motion it needs. You also have to be physically active, he said. When you’re being active — like walking, running or just getting in some more movement overall — your body has the range of motion that it needs to function properly.
Fredericson added that if you all of a sudden do an activity that requires unfamiliar movement from your calves, you could be at risk of straining or even tearing your muscles.
To help prevent this, Fredericson said you can do some regular plyometric exercises — like jump squats, burpees and jumping jacks — to prepare your calf muscles.
In the end, it’s important to pair stretches with physical activity so your calf muscles (and your body as a whole) can be as healthy as possible.