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Anatomy of a Calf Stretch

Since my last blog post was about the Calf Stretch, I thought I’d share a little more information about this area of your body and some health issues that can affect you here.

Gastroc/Soleus

The posterior (back) calf is made up of two predominant muscles: the gastrocnemius (gast-rock-nee-mee-us), which is the muscle that gives your calf that shape you are familiar with, and the soleus, which is deep (under) the gastrocnemius – closer to the bone. Both of these muscles continue to the common “calcaneal tendon”, which you will be familiar with as the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon attaches to your heel bone, so these muscles are some of those “extrinsic” muscles I alluded to in my past post (attachments to the foot AND the leg).

For simplicity, we’ll be talking about these muscles alone today.

The gastrocnemius attaches to the heel, but the other end splits into two “heads” and attaches above the knee to the femur (thigh bone). This is important because when this muscle is tight, it affects the space in the knee – which can lead to issues like osteoarthritis and torn meniscus.

Also, when the gastroc is tight, it affects a pull on the Achilles tendon, which will make the foot point (like a ballet dancer on her toes). When you stand up, your own weight on the floor pushes your heel to the ground, so you might not even be aware of the excessive forces on the tendon at all times. This is why the Calf Stretch is so important.

YOU’RE STILL DOING THE CALF STRETCH, RIGHT?

Now, the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel, but it doesn’t just stop there. The fascia (connective tissue) continues around the heel bone and then continues with the plantar fascia (I’m betting a high percentage of my readers are familiar with that sucker!). SO – if your calf muscles are tight, you are also affecting the plantar fascia, which can lead to plantar fasciitis, which is inflammation of this structure and can be very painful. The plantar fascia tugging on the front of the heel bone can lead to bone spurs, which is actually your body trying to adapt to the loads of excessive pull on a bone by making that bone more robust.

And need I tell you – it doesn’t end there! The plantar fascia supports the entire foot, and is not an isolated structure. So I kind of did start with the foot this year, eh?

TAKEAWAY: Keep on keeping on with the Calf Stretch.

BONUS EXERCISE: Soleus Stretch. The two joint Gastroc will be targeted when the knee is straight, but to target the Soleus we need to bend the knee a bit. (Yes I know the photo is fuzzy. After several attempts at focusing on automatic, I decided this looked “artsy.” It’s an impressionist Soleus Stretch, ok?)

DIRECTIONS:
Still in your calf stretch position on the half dome (or rolled towel), slightly bend your knee (or knees). Keep the feet and knees pointing straight forward – don’t allow the knee to collapse inward in order to bend the knee further, and try not to let the arch of the foot collapse either. Add this to the end of every Calf Stretch now.

Further reading:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28110795 “Subjects with knee OA [osteoarthritis] presented with a thicker Achilles tendon compared with the healthy controls. Furthermore, a significant correlation between Achilles tendon thickness and knee OA severity was found. A comprehensive assessment of the Achilles tendon and ankle joint should be a part of the knee OA evaluation process.”

On tendon strains: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2697334/

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