Your shoes can also play a role. “For example, high heels restrict the full range of motion of that muscle group,” says Dr. Schroeder. “Or if you have a running shoe that has a really stiff bottom and doesn’t allow the foot to roll from the heel to the ball of the foot, [that can also restrict movement].” When your movement is hampered consistently, your neuromuscular system isn’t as efficient either—essentially, your brain sends the signal to your muscles saying it’s not safe to move through a very big range of motion. And so the cycle continues.
What’s the problem with calf tightness?
Sure, calf tension can feel tight, achy, and uncomfortable, but it can also lead to more serious issues too. For instance, calf tightness can cause other aches and pains, as well as mess with your form in the gym.
“Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, knee pain, and plantar fasciitis can all originate from tight calf muscles,” says Dr. Schroeder. This is because these shortened muscle fibers actually affect other ligaments and joints. In the case of knee pain, tight calves can pull down on the ligaments on the back of your knee. With plantar fasciitis, tight calves can pull up on the fascia (connective tissue) on the bottom of your feet.
Tight calves can also affect your squat form. “When people can’t get into a deep squat, they might think it’s their hips or they aren’t strong enough, but it could actually be tight calves,” says Otey.
Here’s why: “If you have tightness in the calves, you cannot dorsiflex [your ankles],” Dr. Schroeder explains. Dorsiflexion is when your toes get closer to your shin, the opposite of plantar flexion, or pointing your toes. This causes your heels to lift off the floor as you get deeper into a squat, so you lose stability and can’t go further down. (Ankle mobility also plays a role here.) If you can’t get deep enough into a squat, you’re not using your glutes and hamstrings to their full potential.
“[When this happens,] we’ve disrupted the kinetic chain from the bottom up, and immediately you’re in a weakened position,” adds Otey.
How can calf stretches help?
To avoid or reduce calf tightness, static stretches (which are held in place) can make a big difference—they’ll help loosen up the deepest parts of your muscle, says Dr. Schroeder.