Here’s a riddle - what can both push and halt your movements in a simultaneous and fluid movement? The answer? Your calves! The gastrocnemius muscles elongating that back of your legs are miraculous feats of body mechanics and are responsible for helping you go and stop.
Strong calf muscles play a critical role in promoting good form when running and playing sports, helping you generate more powerful, faster, and efficient performance. Weak calf muscles can result in injury and chronic conditions like Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, strains, hip problems and plantar fasciitis. Your calves need your care including regular stretching after workouts and athletic activity, as well as nutrients and electrolytes that power healthy muscle growth, repair, and contraction. Check out these top 5 calf care tips:
Want to build up the muscle strength in your calf? Get up on those tippy toes! A “Farmer’s Walk” on your tiptoes while holding heavy dumbbells can do wonders for strengthening calf muscles. Start with a pair of heavy dumbbells you know you can hold for at least a minute. Rise up on your toes holding the dumbbells at your side, stand tall and lengthen the spine, and walk in a forward motion for a full minute. Repeat 2x throughout the day. Not only does this work your calf muscles, but it strengthens shoulder stability, lat muscles, and promotes a stronger, tighter core.
Experiencing leg cramps? A knot in your calf muscle can feel like a thousand knives at once. Oftentimes cramping is a result of low electrolyte levels. Minerals like potassium perform crucial electrolyte roles in transmitting electrical signals which help regulate muscle contraction. When your levels are low, your muscles will feel the pain. Foods like avocado, bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, acorn squash, and even plain low-fat yogurt can introduce loads of naturally-occurring potassium into your diet.
Simply want to gulp down a sports drink for electrolytes after a long workout? You might want to think again. While they contain electrolytes, sports drinks also often have sugars, calories, and potential toxins from artificial coloring in them. Hydrating with water and packing potassium in with nutritious meals and snacks may be a better day to day option.
Mixing a stretch in with a contraction serves a dual purpose when it comes to plyometric jump squats. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes slightly turned outward, hold your arms straight out in front of you and squat down. Make sure to keep your upper body tall and straight while you push your butt out as you squat. Push off in an energetic but controlled motion to explode from the ground while maintaining good form, and then try to land as softly as you can on your heels. Jump squats increase power, and strengthen calf muscles and bones. Do 15 squats per set, three times a day.
Where mindfulness meets calf care, the yoga pose “adho mukha shvanasana,” or downward facing dog, is actually one of the most beneficial calf stretches you can do. On your knees (preferably on a yoga mat or nonslip surface), place your hands in front of you, palms spread, and curl your toes under. Walk your legs back and straighten (but don’t lock) your knees out as you raise your butt up. Push your top thighs back and press your heels towards the ground as far as they will go, ultimately making a triangle shape with the ground. Keep your spine straight and lengthened, and your head between your upper arms, don’t let it hang.
You can switch bending knees for 10 to 20 seconds at a time to push the opposite heel into the ground to get a really good stretch. Or hold the pose for a full minute and release back to ground with a healthy exhale. Stretching the gastrocnemius in this way both limbers up the muscle while it’s most pliable post-workout as well as helps prevent injury.
Want to slip some calf care into your workday while you’re not hitting the gym or the field? Stretching aids like foam rollers and calf stretchers allow you intermittent stretching of important leg and feet muscles while you’re sitting at your desk or watching TV. The best calf stretcher will look like a wide, foot-long half moon rocker with an angled foot plate and nonslip surface where you place your foot to rock back and forth, stretching the calf and plantar fascia muscles. Practice good posture while sitting or standing to use a calf stretcher, and aim to stretch after a quick warm-up like a brisk walk or jump squats.
The maintenance of your calf muscles doesn’t have to be extensive or complicated, but you will notice when they are not in tip top shape - cramping, injury, and reduced performance are key indicators. With nourishment, exercise, and regular stretching, your calves can take your game to the next level.