Your calf muscles get a daily workout -- they can become tight from exercise, walking or even excessive sitting. Stretching the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles before exercise helps with flexibility but sometimes even stretching causes pain along the back of your lower legs. When this happens, you've probably strained the calf muscles -- overstretched a cold or stiff muscle, resulting in a partial or complete tear between the muscle and the Achilles tendon. First, treat the injury, and then work on prevention.
When stretching causes soreness or pain in a calf muscle, treat it with RICE: rest, ice, compression and elevation. If it's a serious, acutely painful injury, see a doctor. If it's mild discomfort and the RICE treatment helps, try some very easy stretching to loosen any tightness as the injury begins to heal. You may find that elevated heels or stairs aggravate the injury, so avoid those until normal, pain-free flexibility is restored, usually within a few days. If the soreness becomes a cramp, an involuntary muscle spasm that feels like a knot in your muscle and really hurts, a heating pad may help to relieve the spasm. Cramps may also result from dehydration or a potassium deficiency -- water, electrolyte fluid and bananas are your remedies once the cramp releases.
Good Calf Stretches
Dynamic stretching is the smart way to begin an exercise session with muscles properly warmed up and ready for contraction and stretching. Walk briskly for a few minutes and then do 10 to 15 reps of the following stretch on each leg. Begin on all fours, raise your hips until your knees and elbows are straight and you are balanced on your palms and the balls of your feet. Lift one foot and rest it lightly on the opposite ankle, then lower the heel of the supporting foot as close to the ground as it is comfortable to go -- don't force it. Lift the lowered heel and repeat. Do all reps on one side and then switch sides.
Seniors and sprinters get maximum gastrocnemius benefits from a wall stretch -- it works for tight muscles and underused ones. Position yourself at arms' length from the wall, with your palms on the wall at shoulder height. Lean into the wall as you step one leg forward, with bent knee. Keep the straight back leg flat on the floor, or lower the heel as far as you can to the floor -- be gentle but don't slack. Hold the position while you take three deep breaths. Switch legs. Keep your hip bones and shoulders square to the wall throughout. For stair dips, stand on a low step -- hold the rail -- balanced on the ball of your foot with your heels hanging over the edge. Lower and raise your heels slowly.
If pain is localized at the bottom of your calf, work the soleus -- your lower calf muscle -- once you've recovered from a strain. Target this muscle by doing wall stretches with both knees bent. With your palms against the wall, deepen the stretch in the bent back leg until you can feel it. Or place the front of your foot against the wall with your heel on the floor and push your knee slowly toward the wall until you feel the stretch low on your calf. Lie on your back on a mat, bend your knees and bring them to your chest, grab your toes and pull them toward you for an easy, assisted flex.
Seated Calf Stretch
Sit on a mat, with your back straight and your legs extended, and place a resistance band on the sole of one foot. Keeping your posture upright, tighten your abs and pull both of your arms back, pulling your toes toward you with the band. Hold the pose for about 20 seconds, release and repeat two to four times. Switch sides. This version targets mainly the gastrocnemius. Work the soleus by performing another set of reps with a bent knee on the working leg.