The left photo of a client’s attempt at active dorsiflexion (meaning, as far as she can pull her foot back toward her head without using external support to get it to go farther). In the right photo is my foot demonstrating my active dorsiflexion.
I placed the dotted line from the center of the heel up through the edge of the ball of the foot to show the difference in angles of our foot to our calves. There is no magical amount of ankle mobility that everyone should have. There is only – do you have enough mobility to do the things you want to do?
When you don’t have enough mobility in your ankles to walk, run, go up or down stairs, do activities, or play sports – you might start experiencing aches or pains. Or you may find that you just can’t do the movement or activity you were intending to do. Tight calves, and foot and ankle issues can range from feeling uncomfortable to downright painful, and what is true for every area of your body is also true for your ankles:
Where one area is lacking, somewhere else will always try to make up for it.
Let’s discuss how to make your ankle move better so that you can start changing how your calves and feet feel.
If you were just a bony skeleton, aside from being slightly creepy yet totally badass skeleton person, your ankle would move in all the ways it is an ankle joint is built to.
But you’ve got soft tissue – skin, connective tissue, muscles, tendons, and ligaments – and – you have the king that rules over all of that soft tissue.
To change your ankle mobility and help your calves feel better, you must address both the soft tissues and the king that rules over them.
Why Does Tightness In The Calves Happen?
This is important to know about because you’re going to do the work to help your calves feel and function better, and you don’t want to short change yourself by being unaware of the things that cause them to get tight, painful, and immobile.
There are two main contributors to sub-optimal ankle mobility and tight calves:
- Lack of regular movement through the full range of motion of the ankle (that is, you stop telling your ankles they should have complete range of motion, good mobility, and full control)
- Shoes that act like casts on the foot and ankle (this includes all positive heeled shoes, some runnings shoes, and all flip flops)
In this post, I’ll cover the first contributing factor, and how to fix it. And if you need more guidance on shoes that are negatively impacting you, check out this FFRL article.
(There are rare instances when a bony block legitimately prevents you from accessing what would be considered “normal” ankle range of motion. This is indicated by having imaging done to view the bony tissues and see that something is actually impeding the joint from norma function. These are rare, which means you more than likely, can improve your ankle mobility.)
Tight Calves…So What?
Think of what your stiff, tight, calf muscles are connected to – the foot and ankle (& knee, but we’re focusing on the lowest of appendages today). They are two parts of the body that must have mobility to function correctly.
Here’s an example to showcase this. Follow along with me in the video as you try to make the biggest circle you can with your wrist. Don’t move or rotate your forearm at all!
Was your circle big and smooth like mine? (If not, we’ve found another place to address your mobility! Let’s keep focused on your ankles and calves for today though.) The large circle motion of the wrist is similar to the large circle motion that the ankle is built to do.
Compensations And Dysfunction
When you lose ankle range of motion, all of the soft tissues around the ankle and lower leg will compensate for the lacking mobility.
The soft tissue on the front of the shin will have to work harder to dorsiflex the ankle so that you can walk, squat, and go up and down stairs. And the soft tissues around the sides and back of your calf can become stiff, tight, and weak…making it more difficult to resist ankle sprains, as well as making it more difficult to move with freedom.
In addition, the plantar fascia gets caught up in the dysfunctional movement of the lower leg and ankle. Normally, it acts like a tie rod, undergoing tension when you load the body. But if the muscles of the foot and lower leg do not support the dispersement of load across all of the tissues, the plantar fascia will take on more load with each step you take. This is one way plantar fasciitis can develop.
When your calves shorten as part of the loss of mobility, your body shifts its weight distribution forward over the mid-foot instead of over the heel as it was designed. Katy Bowman made a fantastic picture showcasing this shift:
When this goes on for long enough, the plantar fascia will harden and eventually calcify. What was once a supple piece of tissue becomes a rigid piece of tissue that is now being loaded with no real way to displace that load through the rest of the foot.
(This can also be a culprit behind stress fractures on the 2nd or 3rd ball joint and navicular bone of the foot. Improper loading of the foot and its tissues, puts more load on the bones in the front of the foot. Hard, bony, tissues are no different from soft tissues…they are impacted and will respond to the forces being placed on them.)
The King That Rules Your Mobility
Your nervous system oversees how much mobility you have access to. And while gaining passive range of motion is important (think: static stretching), the problem with only working on passive range of motion is that it does not allow the nervous system to learn valuable information about that position, such as, how to generate control, strength, and safety in that position.
In order for your nervous system to understand how to access new ranges of motion safely and with control, you must teach it. This is done by performing neural control training to teach the tissues you are working how to contract through the full range of tissue length, not just the mid-ranges of the tissue length, but the end-ranges as well.
Action Plan To Start Helping Your Calves
You did not create stiff, tight, calves and ankles overnight – and you will not restore them overnight. But every signal you send to your body to tell it how you want it to adapt will be responded to. With consistent effort, and intelligent signaling to your body, you can change the way your joints and tissues feel.
Here’s how to get started working on your tight calves and ankles:
– Perform stretches every day for your calves as a movement break in your day. By increasing the volume of the signal that says “move the ankle into dorsiflexion”, you will signal that you’d like to maintain your current range of motion, continue sending healthy blood supply to the tissues and joints, and improve the health of the tissue and joint. While static stretching alone is not the answer, it is a component that will assist the entire process along.
– Start using neural control training to get your nervous system involved in the process of developing usable mobility, not just passive flexibility. It is best if you learn neural control training from a teacher or coach. There is a lot of detail and nuance that goes into it that just cannot be conveyed completely through an instagram post or blog. You can learn from someone local to you, or to learn with me you’ll want to be a part of my coaching group.
– Get out of your positive-heeled shoes. Including your running shoes. But do not go cold turkey down to zero-drop shoes. Expect to spend many months training your feet to go from typical positive-heeled shoes down to flat zero-drop shoes.
– Walk around barefoot every single day. You were born capable of doing this. Do not die incapable of it. Start easy, on soft surfaces for a few minutes per day if it hurts. Work up to walking on a variety of surfaces barefoot. Grass. Rocks. Concrete. All of it.
– Remind yourself that this will take time, so a little patience will go a long way. 🙂
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