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A Lesson in Calf Stretching: Soleus Edition

January 24, 2009

FYI: This blog has moved to a new address. Catch up on new posts at: http://swimbikerunlive.com/

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).

soleusdiag

soleus diagram

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.

stretch-calf-soleus2

  1. Stand with one leg in front of the other, with both feet pointed forward. Place hands on a wall or similar for support
  2. Keep back knee bent, with the heel pressed to the floor
  3. Push your hips forward, while pressing your back heel to ground
  4. Hold the stretch
  5. Repeat on each leg

Notes

  • 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. 🙂

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11 comments

  1. Soleus! Yay!

    Works the same way with strengthening exercises, by the way; seated calf raises target the soleus, and calf raises with the knees straight work the gastroc more. Keeping those loose also helps guard against achilles tendonitis!

    Glad you’re all better 😀


  2. sounds like you are increasing your ability to discern exactly where the problems are comign from. its pretty cool as you develop that sensitivity to feel every stride, how your foot is meeting the ground, dorsiflexion of your foot at various points in the stride, all the way up to how you hold your head, tension in your jaw, etc. really makes the running experience so much more interesting 🙂


  3. Ahaha. You crack me up. Yup, two muscles in that area that need to be stretched. Yup, they do two different things. Bet you won’t forget that again! Isn’t it crazy how much new info is out there even after years of training.

    Glad you found the secret. Hope your calf is much happier.


  4. yeah, after years of training, there’s still a ton to learn/know. thanks for the lesson! & i’m so glad that you could get spiderman to help you out with this. he’s amazing, huh?


  5. Dude, suck it up and rub some dirt on it. Okay, joking but great info and thanks for sharing. It is amazing how many muscles we use and don’t even know it. Keep the great info coming.


  6. Thanks for the info. Like you said there is just waay too much info out there.


  7. bikram buddy! thanks for this info — i have a feeling i will be referencing it at some point! and thanks for your note!! i will miss you too, but will be keeping up w/it all here…and oceanside 2010???you would have a place to stay 😉


  8. Thanks for the info. How long did it take for healing?


  9. have you read “Born To Run” yet? It will likely change your life. My DH has been running every other day for nearly 20 years and he’s always loved it, but this book turned his world upside down…in a very good way. It was just released in May, and is a great story. Anyone who is interested in running would enjoy it greatly.


  10. I am going through the same muscular pain right now (this is why i googled the topic and found this post). i have been working my speed on the threadmill during the winter and every interval training session was the source of pain exaclty in the spot where the soleus gets under the calf and attaches to the side of the tibia. the feeling was identical to get hit on the tibia with a wood stick (or a kick). both legs. it took away the fun of speed work outs. I tried stretching, massages and rest (whcih kind of worked). the best remedy has been to add an anti-inflammatory gel (I used one clalled Movelat) at night, and bandage it with clean kitchen film so that it keep working all night and a tight sock on top of it. but, i am still suffering from it and i suspect it has to do with my “duck feet” (when i walk, my feet are open at 10:10 o clock) and i need to perhaps go see a running specialist or consider orthotics. I hope not, as this is yet another thing to worry about. However the alternative is to accept to run slowly and THAT is not going to happen. well, directionaly…


    • Thanks for the comment Ivan.

      If it makes you feel any better, I actually had my Soleus problems when I was doing 25-30 miles per week at really slow base pace (9 or 10 minutes/mile). Granted it sounds like we have very different causes for our problems, but I thought that might make you feel beter about not giving up the speed work.



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