This week we are looking at the two big muscles that make up your calf. They are some of the strongest muscles in the body since you are using them a lot through the day, even if you aren’t very sporty as they are helping you to push off from the ball of your foot even just walking around and climbing stairs. This means it is constantly getting shortened and tightened, particularly if you are overweight. I have found that because I exercise barefoot (in my 5 finger shoes) I have developed enormous calf muscles since the style of dancing and running involves pushing off and landing onto the forefoot (rather than heel striking) which involves the calves being used as a sponge for the impact (rather than the lower back, which is more involved in heel strike). A shortened and tight calf is a big danger for all athletes and Yogi’s and the danger of rupture is increased if there is not enough stretching performed after engaging in sport. This is exacerbated if you regularly wear heels, even only low ones (1 or 2 inches).
The calf is made up of two muscles. The Soleus (from the latin word meanding sandal) lies under the Gastoncnemius whose name comes from the Greek Gaster, meaning stomach or belly and Kneme which is the part of the leg between the knee and the ankle. We can see the outer muscle which attaches to the heel at the Achilles Tendon in a well developed calf, you can see the two heads of the “belly”. Although you can’t see the Soleus, you can feel it strongly when you bend the knee.
Both muscles help us bend our feet back and bend the knee and they help to stabilise our stride when running, dancing and walking. The calf muscles need to be elongated in order to get into poses such as Downward Facing Dog and Warrior 1 and Revolved Triangle. It is often tight calves that cause a rounded back in Dog rather than tight hamstrings (a common misconception). In order to get the heels down, the Yogi brings then hands nearer to the hands and the shortened stance causes the spine to flex too far. The best distance from hands to feet is obtained by going into dog from plank. Technically, with the correct shoulder, calf and hamstring length, the practitioner can get both heels and head on the floor in this pose but of course length of arms and legs plays a part in this too.
Straining the calf is a common injury for sporty people particularly in the vulnerable gastocnemius which crosses both the ankle and the knee joints. The pain will often be felt in the belly region of the muscle. The muscle can excessively stretch followed by a paineful forceful contraction of the muscle fibres. If you sometimes feel calf tightness, stiffness and pain, it is more likely to be damage of the soleus.
Even a mild grade 1 strain can take a few weeks to recover from. The most common type is a grade two in which you are unable to walk properly due to pain, swelling, tightness and bruising. A grade 3 strain can take up to three months to recover from and often presents as a complete inability to contract the damaged calf muscle.
Yoga is a great way of preventing and rehabilitating calf strains.
The calf needs to be regularly stretched(particularly after they are warmed up) in order to prevent injury for at least 2 minutes on at least 5 or 6 days a week, not just briefly after exercise. However, if the calf muscles are recently strained, it is very important to ensure there some recovery from the acute injury before returning to your mat (usually within 3 to 10 days) and full recovery should be experienced before returning exercise (especially running, dancing, jumping or tennis types of exercise) or there is risk of prolonging the injury or even tearing the achillies tendon resulting in surgical repair.
When performing calf stretches against the wall, and on a slant board or with toe against the wall, it is paarticulrly important to keep the foot in a neutral position so if you have a tendency, like most people, to pronate (collapse the arch inward) then it is advisable to place a small rolled towel under the arch to stop it collapsing as you stretch.
Just like Hamstring injuries, it is often a residual weakness that causes the strain and therefore your Yoga practice needs to involve building strength in the calf muscle as well as lengthening it. One legged calf raises are useful for the building up of calf muscles though in the case of injury, it is best to start with seated heel raise activity and progress to full weight bearing exercises and training specific to your sport. I would also recommend a regular sports massage who can release some of the tightness before you exercise it.