The second drill I want you to work on to help increase mobility and flexibility of your lower legs is actually to do a backwards run. This is a great eccentric loading exercise so your heel is sort of dropping down after the ball of your foot touches. A lot of people like to do eccentric heel drops. I think these are even better because you’re getting more of a loading into your Achilles and into your soleus, that lower part of your calf, and you’re going to help with a lot of strength in the foot and ankle. So, really simply, you’re going to run backwards really easy and lightly touch the heels after the ball of the foot lands just like so.
So the last drill I want you to try is a little bit more advanced, maybe a lot more advanced, for many people. And this one is going to really hone in on any little weaknesses that you may have in your ankles and your feet and any little ligament strain that you might have down there too. So it’s going to help a whole lot with strength and the stability of your lower leg and especially your balance too. So you’re going to need a two by four, and what you’re going to do is, as simple as it may sound, you’re going to stand on the board like this with the balls of your feet on the board and your big toe just hanging off a little bit. So not the arch and definitely not the heel. Just stand on the board like so without your heels dropping down, okay?
So get nice and comfortable, like that, and, once you do, traverse the board. Walk across, and it’s a lot harder than what it looks. You’ll really feel any little imbalance you might have in there. Once you get to one end, or get a little ways, then come back and go the other way, keeping those heels off the ground like I am right now. What you can also do is stop at a certain point and squat down, and I’m staying nice and relaxed here like this, staying on the balls of my feet, and then, to make it even more advanced, if you can, come up on the balls of your feet, like this. Get right up on your toes as much as you can and then back down, and do a couple of those almost like little calf raises but in the squatted position on the two by four. It’s pretty difficult, just like that, and back down, and come back up. I’m keeping my balance. I’m keeping my position, nice and tall. I’m keeping my heels off the ground, and I’m going to go and traverse the board again, just like that, never touching, or hopefully not touching. And if you do, just get right back on.
So let me just show you from the back now so you can see my heels. Put them on like so, traverse and across. Okay! And that’s how it’s done.
A common warm-up or cool-down ritual, particularly in the running community, is the straight-leg calf stretch. Of the many ways you can warm-up your calves, runners tend to like to push against a wall or other vertical object to get a good stretch and give them a feeling of security, as false as it may be. After all, most runners have tight calves, and most think it’s completely normal and comes with the total package of being a runner. Some feel the need to stretch in order to temporarily “loosen” the calves and be able to run while many more mistakenly think that the more they stretch the calves the less their chance of injury. Yet, stretching the calves in such a static “hold and stretch” manner is not associated with any reduction in injury and definitely not any faster healing time of injured tissue. Calf wall stretches, however, are a great isometric upper body exercise if you’re training to push something or someone over.
Stretch More, Stabilize Less
Stretch and hold all you want but as a runner you’ll not effectively lengthen the muscles and improve stability at the same time to the point where you become a better athlete. Actually, the more you choose to stretch the calves while leaning against the wall the weaker these tendons and muscles will become resulting in increased injury rates. Some runners are even taught to perform this and many other silly stretches after they run to “retain the flexibility” which they hopefully gained during the run. Are you kidding me? So if you hold a stretch for 8-20+ seconds then all of a sudden your body magically locks in the increased flexibility you got from your run. This is assuming you’re running efficiently in the first place, (probably not if you feel the need to stretch), and are actually creating some increased and healthy flexibility. It’s also assuming that you ran in the Land of Magic where post-exercise stretching for some short predetermined time now all of a suddenly prolongs gains just by adding this little extra gimmick.
Movement should be functional which means not only should it be in-line with the type of activity you’re trying to perform but it should also benefit your activity/lifestyle in a positive way. Your body is never in such an elongated position as the straight-leg wall stretch position while running. Your foot is never flat on the ground with your leg back in an almost completely extended position. What are you trying to develop – a longer stride where you’re pushing off at the point where your glutes (the power muscles of running) are no longer engaged and you’re relying on your Achilles tendon for power? It’s a very compromised position and if you’re really feeling a “good stretch” while doing this movement then you’ve got issues that need to be addressed.
More is Not Always Better
Longer, in regards to muscles, is not necessarily better unless the muscle has shortened due to some muscular imbalances; and stretching will never correct muscular imbalances anyway. Simply stretching a muscle and holding it to try to make it longer and “looser” simply decreases stability while compromising function. When you lack stability you’ll increase your chances of injury and decrease performance. Flexibility is a reflection of health and fitness and is also accomplished in part by performing activities that develop normal range of motion relative to the level which you currently function at. In other words, stretching to the point of a traditional “deep stretch” beyond your means is a bad idea. Let me explain more.
Flexibility can be increased in a healthy manner if you develop it within the confines of your current fitness. So if you’re unable to touch your toes yet you force yourself to do it, (or have someone push your back down or legs up to accomplish the task), then you’re going beyond your current functional ability. Nothing good can come from doing this type of stretch; it’s too much for your body. (Yeah there are exceptions for other athletes but we’re not talking about those specifics sports here.) The same thing goes for if you feel the need to stretch your calves in such a straight-leg wall stretch manner. If you feel like getting your leg out to a certain length and pushing your foot down is going to improve anything, you’re mistaken. You should be able to perform such a “stretch”, or movement, as I’ll call it now, without it being too difficult if your calves are naturally flexible. Simply put – if you feel the need to do the wall stretch and you get a good stretch then I say that’s a great indicator NOT to do the stretch because you’re only going to cause problems by doing it. If you don’t feel the need to do the movement then why do it because you’re already beyond such a ridiculous drill anyway.
Eccentric Heel Drops? Let’s Make It Better
If you want to naturally elongate your calves and create strength and stability at the same time some recommend eccentric heel drops. Though these are definitely better than the wall stretch as now you’re elongating in a (hopefully) controlled manner under an eccentric (lengthening) load, I feel there are better methods. Plus, if you’re dropping your heel off a step and holding the calf stretch at the bottom then you’re right back to the disadvantages of stretching as you’re simply trying to make something longer that either does not need or want to be lengthened.
Create Flexibility, Stability, and Strength in Your Calves
Simply wearing a shoe with less heel height will start to “stretch” your calves and Achilles tendon and naturally elongate this area. This is why if you transition too quickly to a lower drop shoe or barefoot walking/running then you’ll often have sore calves the next day. Even worse, if you progress faster than what you’re capable of you’ll actually injure yourself in this transition period. Check out “Lose Your Shoes” for more on this.
Many people are doing wall stretches to try to lengthen the calves yet they cannot even walk barefoot or in a zero-drop type shoe without issues. If your body can’t handle this normal (or what should be normal) stress to the calf under load then why do you want to put it in a compromised position by doing a wall stretch? This is like trying to run before you can crawl. Pushing on a wall in traditional shoes with heels is just plain silly; you’ve shortened your calf while you’re trying to lengthen it.
Once you can handle some barefoot and zero-drop shoes, the next step to help with foot and lower leg mobility and stability is to work on your deep squat. I won’t get too much into that here as you can watch the video below. Full body squats are a great functional exercise to help you move better overall, especially if you’re a runner.
Another great way to develop strength, stability, and flexibility in your calves is to run backwards. Again, this eccentric loading training is like a weighted stretch but of course your heel can never go past the plane of the ball of your foot. But by landing on your toes and lowering your heel down in a controlled fashion, yes, you’re getting a good “stretch” without the many disadvantages of stretching. Do a few sets of these for 50-75’ and see how your calves feel the next day.
Finally, and this is the most advanced though it may look simple – walk on a 2X4 board as I show in the video. This will further improve your strength, stability and flexibility in your calves. Add in a deep squat on the board too – it’s much harder than if you were on the ground.
Can you do all these drills? If you can, then there’s no reason to ever push on a wall to do a calf stretch because your body is so far advanced you would achieve absolutely nothing beneficial from such as stretch. Now of course if you’re bored and don’t want to chit-chat before a race yet want to blend in, then find a tree, stick your back leg out really far, and lean.