There are 3 muscles groups* that every runner should stretch on a regular basis. The calf muscles is one of them. If you are not a runner but physically active, it is still a good idea to stretch the calf muscles once or twice a week.
The only time NOT to stretch the calves is when they are pulled, torn, or otherwise injured.
The calves include the deeper-lying thicker Soleus, and the more superficial double-headed Gastrocnemius. Both of these muscles merge into the Achilles tendon.
The Achilles tendon, as all other tendons in the body, is not elastic, meaning it is a set length, incapable of being stretched beyond its length. To stretch a tendon is to tear it. Hence, the only way to gain some relief in the Achilles tendon from any tightness is to stretch its attaching muscles – the calves.
What if the calves feel suddenly tight?
It may be due to weakness in specific fibers within the Calves. As we age, we lose muscle tone and muscle mass.
If you experience sudden onset calf muscle tension, several fibers may have gotten too weak for your basic everyday load.
The best solution for getting rid of muscle tension is to strengthen the affected muscles.
Start with 2 sets of 15-20 repetitions of Heel Raises, or Eccentric Heel Drops. After a week of daily sets, the tension will subside, or altogether disappear.
Why it is important to stretch the calves for runners
After a run, the calf muscles respond to the exercise by getting tighter. If not relaxed (being massaged, rolled, and stretched), they will remain tight, creating a strong continuous pull on the Achilles tendon. After the next run, the same thing happens. But now, an even stronger pull is being applied to the tendon. And so on, after each run. If not relaxed or stretched at some point, the Achilles tendon is not able to maintain its length and begins to tear and become inflamed (tendonitis).
If you are not a runner, the calf muscles typically get tight as well. It is generally a good idea to stretch and massage them.
The most effective way to stretch the calf muscles is to step one leg back, plant the heel on the floor, and hold the stretch for at least 1 minute. The long hold will create more length in the calves.
Holding for less time (10-30 sec) will not be as effective to create permanent length, but is still beneficial to relax the muscles.
A straight-leg stretch targets the Gastrocnemius muscles, while a bent-knee stretch targets mainly the Soleus.
Please note, if you have a tear, or tendonitis, stretching is contra-indicated as it will only deepen the tear or make the tendonitis worse.
It’s best to perform Eccentric Heel Drops before performing any long-hold stretches.
General Stretching Rule of Thumb: Stretch only healthy tissue.
Massage is an effective way to treat tight calf muscles, especially after a run.
* The other two muscles groups are Hamstrings and Hip Flexors.