A Lesson in Calf Stretching: Soleus EditionJanuary 24, 2009
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After almost a decade of running and working out, and going on three years in triathlon, I’m still surprised about how much I have to learn about training and my own body. It can be humbling sometimes when you realize how much you still have to learn, but I wanted to share my experiences this last week so hopefully no one makes the same mistakes (or at least corrects them faster than I did).
As triathletes, we are like scientists studying our own bodies. We test our bodies daily with different workouts and the occasional rest day. We heavily analyze its outputs on a regular basis so that we can ultimately kick ass on race day. Sometimes our body is predictable and you know just how it is going to react, but other times it trows you for a complete loop and it takes some detective work to bring your body back to normal.
That is exactly what happened to me last week. I had this huge ball of tightness in my left calf that was a big pain. I limped a little for the first mile of my runs, but after I warmed up it was completely gone and I was good as gold. I could pull off easily doing more than an hour without too much worries, but after a while, the tight muscles throughout the day was wearing on my body.
I did everything that I could to try and rub it out without any luck. I spent multiple sessions per day on the foam roller, mashing out my quads, calves and hamstrings and I got downright violent about it after a while. I could feel a huge lump back there, but it just wasn’t budging. After asking around to some more knowledgeable athletes, making a quick visit to my favorite massage therapist at Boston Body Worker, getting the green light from Coach Brett to take some time off of running and doing some reading online, I finally figured out the culprit.
Apparently all the foam roller work and my go-to calf stretch (putting the ball of my foot up against the wall, keeping my knee straight and leaning forward) wasn’t even touching the right muscle. Apparently there is a whole different muscle underneath the meaty wide part at the top of your calf (gastrocnemius). It is that muscle underneath and closer to the bone that was so tight and giving me issues (soleus).
Now that I figured out what the problem is, I was able to actually find some stretches that actually addresses said problem. Enter: your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
- Stand with one leg in front of the other, with both feet pointed forward. Place hands on a wall or similar for support
- Keep back knee bent, with the heel pressed to the floor
- Push your hips forward, while pressing your back heel to ground
- Hold the stretch
- Repeat on each leg
- All stretches should be felt in the back leg NOT the front leg.
- The calf muscle group is made up of Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles. In general, stretches that bend the knee focus on the soleus muscle, while stretches that straighten the knee focus on the gastrocnemius muscle.
At first I wasn’t quite feeling it and only felt my quads working, but once went up against the wall and leaned forward, I could feel all the muscles through my calf stretch out and cry. Clearly this was doing a WHOLE lot that all my other stretches wasn’t. It was a little painful, but in a good way. All the little pieces of scar tissue (or whatever the hell was built up there) were being all broken up, and I turned into a very happy boy. My LMT also had me digging my thumb into my calf muscles and flexing/relaxing my foot to work out the rest of everything that had built up.
Besides trying to keep everything else above and below the calf nice and loose, I also found a whole bunch of knots in the arch of my foot, that is helping to loosen up my ankle. Seriously, I think I’m falling apart. Take a golf ball, or heavy lacrosse ball if you’ve got one, and roll it around under the arch of your foot to stay nice and flexible there too.
Seriously. I think I may be falling apart, but I’m glad I’m at least catching these little things early in the season. My LMT thinks that it is probably because of me changing my stride up to try and keep my ass off the ground with all the icy sidewalks. Man, I can’t wait until Boston dethaws. I’ve seen huge progress so far, but am still taking another day or so off of running before jumping back into the game full steam ahead next week.
So there you go, my little tri tip of the day. Enjoy. 🙂