One of the most common questions I ask is “do you stretch”, and more often than you think, the answer is “yes”. Quickly followed by, “but only my calves”.
This is fine, (well, its not, but at least they are making the effort), but the way people stretch out the lower leg muscle group is woefully inefficient and makes them THINK they are stretching them out all ready for a run, and off they bound, thinking they have warmed up their muscles… however, they have stretched ONE of the muscles. The other one, the (in some peoples opinion, the more important one) hasn’t even been touched, and is being used to a massive capacity without any warning whatsoever.
running on cold muscles is not the greatest thing in the world, but running on cold muscles when you THINK they have been warmed up is probably a whole lot worse. That goes the same for warming down. Imagine thinking you had warmed down and stretched out your muscles after exercise, but in fact you hadn’t. You’d start thinking why do my muscles hurt even though I’ve done everything I’m meant to have done?!
Ah, I think I see the problem. Inefficient stretching. Stretching of muscle groups which are missing out important specific muscles, which either are not being warmed up well enough, or not being cooled down/ flushed through with blood at the end of a session to get rid of all the waste products built up during the workout/run/cycle.
Quick physiology lesson. (you can also check this out on the plantar fasciitis post as its quite relevant to that subject as well).
Muscles of the posterior (back) distal (bottom) chain
There are a number of smaller muscles deep inside the leg, but we are going to concentrate on the Triceps surii. The Gastrocnemius and the Soleus.
Everyone should know what the Gastrocnemius looks like. Its the one you always see on skinny-ass runners and cyclists as they strain their way up a hill. We’re just coming into Tour de France season- watch the lower leg muscles of the riders- they will have ridiculously well developed Gastrocnemius.
The Gastrocnemius muscle attaches to the foot via the calcaneal tendon (achillies tendon), and to the leg at the top, ABOVE the knee on the femur. This is quite an important distinction as opposed to the soleus. The muscle itself is actually quite a thin muscle and does not run all that deep into the leg. However, it does look pretty impressive when it is tensed.
The Gastrocnemius is the muscle everyone knows about and the muscle everyone thinks is stretched when they do the calf stretch. (and they’re right).
Soleus is the muscle that is always forgotten.
Soleus is deep to the Gastrocnemius and is actually a thicker muscle. You can’t see it from the back because the Gastrocnemius is so showy that it completely covers it over. You can access it from the side though. The Soleus is sometimes referred to as the “second heart”. This is because when it contracts, it plays an important role in sending blood back from the extremities to the heart. It is a very important muscle involved in your circulation, as well as in the gait cycle.
The Soleus attaches to the foot at the bottom on the same tendon as the gastrocnemius. They blend together into the Calcaneal (achilles) tendon. At the top is a very different story. The Soleus attaches to the top of the Tibia and Fibula- BELOW the knee. That is one of the most important distinctions between the muscles.
|Soleus, the second Heart. As you can see, it blends with the Calcaneal (achilles) tendon, and attaches BELOW the knee, on the top of the Tibia and Fibula.|
What difference does it make?
Well, when the leg is straight, it stretches out the Gastrocnemius beautifully- blood goes through it and all is good and nice. However, when the leg is straight, because all that is going on, the Soleus doesn’t actually get a look in as it attaches below the knee. The blood can stagnate, waste products don’t get flushed through, the muscle becomes hypertonic and tight, and this causes DOMS and might contribute to you getting Plantar fasciitis.
Even though you SWEAR that you always stretch out your calves.
So how do you stretch Soleus and stop all these horrible things happening to you?
When you stretch out in a “calf-stretch” the back leg is straight- right? Right. For half the time. This is the classic stretch that everyone does, and its brilliant.
|Stretch 1- the one you always do. Stretches out the Gastrocnemius|
Once you have stretched that, rock back on to the back leg so that it is BENT. You will feel the muscle stretch/ache in a slightly different place.
That is the Soleus.
|Stretch 2- notice how the back leg is bent- that is stretching the Soleus.|
Stretch that one as well.
And on the other leg.
NOW you have a slightly better set of legs. Go Play.
|Just as a bonus- an extra stretch for the soleus, the rear heel isn’t touching the ground, but it is being pushed down toward it. Be sensible and don’t hurt yourself stretching. Its meant to do you good, not break you.|