Posted by: thehungryrunner | July 17, 2009

“What causes calf muscle tightness?”

EDITED ON 4/20/10 TO ADD:  I’ve just published another article on this subject:  Relieving Tight Calf Muscles – 3 Overlooked Essentials

EDITED ON 7/30/09 TO ADD:  This post has quickly become the most visited entry for my entire blog; for specific stretches, please see my article at TheFlexibilityCoach.com:  Article: 10 Ways to Stretch Tight Calf Muscles.

EDITED ON 6/29/10 TO ADD:  Due to the ongoing high demand on this topic, I have written another article:  How do calf stretches work?.

This is one of the more common questions I receive both in person (from flexibility training clients and yoga students alike) and via email from visitors of my website, www.theflexibilitycoach.com.

The truth is, there’s no one definitive answer to this question, as there are so many factors that contribute to tight calves.  Without question, genetics plays a role here:  some people are simply prone to tighter calves, either due to their inherited shape/length of the muscle or the manner in which their muscle (and the nerves that feed into it) behaves.

However, many causes of tight calves are ones over which we have some control.  If you wear high-heeled shoes, your calves are kept in a state of perpetually shortened length.  If you do a great deal of walking — either as part of your job or part of your exercise routine (or both), you’ll probably be inclined towards tight calves, as the calves, hamstrings and glutes are the primary leg muscles used for walking, especially on any uphill slope.  Runners and other athletes are also prone to calf tightness, as the calf muscles are constantly firing to stabilize the ankle and both absorb each landing and push the heel back off the ground.

Interestingly, calf tightness can also be symptomatic of weakness elsewhere in the leg.  If your glutes and/or hamstrings are weak, your calves will often try to make up for that weakness, which means the muscle gets overused, which in turn exacerbates calf tightness.  In that same vein, calf tension is rarely experienced in isolation; rather, if there is tightness in the calf muscles, there is also a good chance you are tight in your hamstrings as well, due to the synergistic nature of the hamstrings and calves for much of our daily movements.

No matter what it is that’s causing your calves to shorten in the first place, you are almost certainly guaranteeing chronic tightness if you’re not stretching properly or regularly.  Technically, we should all engage in some form of daily stretches for the various calf muscles, since they are used on a daily basis and for so many activities.

Truth be told, while some stretches are far more effective than others, if you’re not doing any form of stretching at the moment, as long as you pick one or two SAFE stretches for yourself and start doing them 1-2 times a day for at least 2 weeks, you should notice some positive changes in your calf muscle (and possibly hamstring) flexibility.

Although stretching is what I consider to be the central strategy in relieving tight calves, it’s also not a bad idea to add some exercises to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes and stabilize the pelvis and ankles, and for this I recommend less machine-based movements, more simple floor exercises – ones you can control easily and therefore perform with great form.

Finally, massages or “body rolling” techniques to the calf muscle can be used, to help break up excessively knarled/clumped connective tissue, which can often be part of the underlying problem as well.

So, while the answer to the question might not be so straightforward, the first step to relief very well can be:  unless your doctor has told you to avoid such stretching, if you find the nearest stairs, stand on them, and let your heels drop off the edge (so that your heels are below the balls of your feet), you should begin to feel the very first stretch that can help you reverse your tight calves for good!

Runners, join me for my online yoga videos and get the flexibility relief you need!  If you’re already a member, the best 5-minute yoga workouts for tight calves are Videos #7, 13, 31, 32 and 35.
 
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Responses

  1. [...] urgency with calf stretch videos Holy SMOKES!  What a difference a marathon makes!  My “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” has been one of the most popular posts on this blog from the get-go, but little did I anticipate the [...]

  2. [...] direct stretches and techniques for this, please refer to my two popular articles on the subject:  “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” and “10 Ways to Stretch Tight Calf [...]

  3. I’ve had tightness in my left calf for almost a year now and nothing I do seems to relieve the condition. Now my low back is also tight and sore along with lateral knee and hip. What should I do?

    • Hello Marlene: Ugh, I’m sorry to hear this, especially now that it appears to be affecting your back, knee and hip. I can imagine how frustrating this must be for you. Have you been to an orthopedic or other doctor to rule out a more serious underlying injury? Can you trace the tightness to any one activity or event?

  4. [...] of keeping my calf muscles supple.  The fact my most popular post on this blog remains my “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” is actually very comforting — at least I know I’m not alone in fighting tight [...]

  5. [...] of keeping my calf muscles supple.  The fact that my most popular post on this blog remains my “What Causes Calf Muscle Tightness?” is actually very comforting — at least I know I’m not alone in discovering that running can [...]

  6. my right calf gets tight every time i run… i have tried stretching in the shower and using a doorframe. i also use a foam roller everyday. any other suggestions? i tore my right acl about five years ago and i’m wondering if it’s b/c my right knee is weak.

    • Hello Sean, I’m glad you’re working with it so diligently; I have to think your calf would be even worse off without it. Without the chance to work with you in person, it’s hard to say for sure what may be behind the tightness, or the knee injury. Do you have stairs in your house, and if so, have you ever used them for stretching? Many of my stretch workouts on the website include calf stretches that are stairway-based, and they can be tremendously effective in promoting flexibility to that muscle.

  7. Thanks! i appreciate your help, and the quick response. i’m guessing it has to do with weaknesses elsewhere. i’ll keep at it!

  8. i used to run (even 1/2 marathons) on my toes and not the standard toe to heel. i have recently started to run with the mid-foot hitting the ground but trying to get back to my on the toes running. each time i am getting a tightness in my mid-calf. however, when this occurred before i just ran through it and had problems walking steps in the morning but after a few days everything was fine. it seems a lot differently now. any suggestions of just my imagination?

    • Hi Jim, thank you for your question. It’s hard to say without seeing you in person; there are just so many possible variables outside of the general points touched on in my article. Ordinarily, I have found that training to run on the balls of the feet will cause its own host of problems, not the least of which is a reinforced minimized range of motion to the lower leg. It may in fact be one reason you’re struggling — your calves are literally not used to being called upon. But I’d really need to sit down and ask many more questions,and watch you run and stretch to get a better idea.

      If I had any suggestion, it would be to look into finding a trainer who can work with you both in a regular calf stretch routine, and also perhaps plyometric drills to build up more strength and endurance in your legs for springing off the ground. For example, various jumping, hopping, and even leaping-type drills. Those kind of workouts can translate well to better range/stamina with running as the movements are similar.

      I hope this helps! Good luck, I’m sure this is frustrating. I hope you’re able to find a solution.

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  10. What’s the calf muscle’s favorite wine?

    “Take me to my hammy!”

  11. I used to run consistantly about 10 years ago. I’ve just returned to running and not having good luck…lol. My calves tighted up so much that I can hardly walk and that’s not good when you are on a paved trail when you have to return to go back to the start.
    I stop and try and stretch it out but doesn’t seem to help. This is my 4th job that I am going on and feel very discouraged. I’m going to get fitted for new shoes and then add stretching daily. Someone had mentioned eating certain foods, like bananas. And of course I am going to drink more water. Any additional information? Supplements?
    Thanks
    Rob


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