Hear this regularly from your riding coach? Hard as you might try, you find that they just keep bouncing up on you? The issue may be related to tightness in your calf muscles.
The calf muscle complex is made up of 3 different muscles: gastrocnemius (medial and lateral heads), soleus and plantaris. These muscles attach to the heel of the foot via the tendo calcaneus, better known as the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius is located in the upper calf region, inserting just above the knee. The soleus sits beneath the gastrocnemius and the upper part of the Achilles tendon, inserting below the knee. Plantaris is a long, very thin muscle that runs the length of the inner calf region. It works closely with gastrocnemius. Together, the calf muscles function to plantar flex the ankle (point the foot or push up onto toes in standing).
How to stretch the calf
In order to get a good quality stretch for both the gastrocnemius and the soleus, it's important to stretch in 2 different ways. I find that people often only stretch the upper calf region, which targets mainly the gastrocnemius. Neglecting to get a decent stretch for the soleus and Achilles tendon is a common cause of continued calf tightness and reduced ankle range of motion.
1). Gastrocnemius stretch
- Stand with your hands against a wall or fixed object. Take a large step back with one foot, keeping the other foot planted on the ground. Keep both feet pointing directly forwards.
- Keeping the heel of your back foot on the ground and your knee straight, lean forward, bending your front knee, until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
- Key points: Position your foot further back to increase the stretch and ensure your foot remains pointing forward throughout.
2). Soleus stretch
- Standing in the same position as above, bring your back foot in slightly closer to your front foot.
- Keeping the heel of your back foot on the ground, now bend your back knee as you lean forwards. You should now feel the stretch lower down in the calf. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
3). Calf stretch on step
Stretching by dropping the heel off the edge of a step can give you a slightly stronger stretch and greater ankle range of motion.
- Stand on a step, with one foot fully on the step and the other with just the toes resting on the edge of the step. Push the heel of this foot down towards the floor until you feel a stretch.
- To stretch the gastrocnemius keep your knee straight.
- To stretch the soleus keep your knee bent.
- Hold for 30 seconds, switch sides and repeat.
Stretching is best performed when the muscles are warm, ideally at the end of a workout or training session. Stretching needs to be performed regularly in order to see results, stretching once a week will not yield instant changes!
A muscle stretch can be a strong sensation but it should never be painful. If you do experience pain, discontinue stretching and seek professional advice from a physiotherapist or other health professional.
Calf tightness can be one reason you struggle to keep your heels down but it is by no means the ONLY reason. If this is a real problem area for you, a detailed assessment by a physio can determine the cause of your reduced ankle range and set a treatment plan to address it.