These four calf stretches (plus one strength move!) promise to relieve Charley horses, help ailing runners, and relax and firm up your lower legs. Read: You need 'em in your routine, stat.
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Your backside does a lot of work—including the lion's share of propelling you forward when you walk, run, and move. It's a particularly heavy workload for your hamstrings and calves. And if you’ve ever been woken up by Charley horse cramps, you likely know that it’s important to know how to stretch your calves. (Related: How Weak Ankles and Ankle Mobility Affect the Rest of Your Body)
The good news: Tight calves (and even Charley horses themselves) likely aren't caused by your workouts or your runs. "Charley horse cramps are caused by involuntary muscle contractions," says Jason Karp, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and run coach based in San Diego, CA. "If you're getting them when you're resting, chances are they're triggered by dehydration or a mineral deficiency [often sodium, potassium, or magnesium]." Some medications, including diuretics and cimetidine (a heartburn reliever), may also be the culprit. "To prevent cramps, drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day, eating high-potassium foods such as bananas and oranges, and stretching your calves before you go to bed," Karp says. If you wake up with a cramp, walk around for a few minutes, massage the area, and then stretch.
And if you're a runner? Your calves could use a little extra TLC—and learning how to stretch your calves the right way will pay off in the long run. Zika Palmer, elite marathoner, and director of ZAP Fitness, a training center for post-collegiate runners in Blowing Rock, NC suggests working these essential calf stretches into your routine. Stretch your calves after each run, you'll have a smoother, more powerful stride within four to six weeks, she says (BTW, you should also be doing these nine post-run stretches).
Just remember: If these calf stretches don't relieve your pain, or you’re suffering from calf cramps daily for a week, it’s best to touch base with your doctor.
Wall Calf Stretch
One of the most effective ways to stretch your calves is via the wall stretch. Face a wall with your hands resting on the wall for support. Extend one leg backward, keeping both feet flat on the ground and the rear knee straight. Lean towards the wall by bending your front knee until you feel tension in the extended leg. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds and repeat with alternate leg. (Related: This Challenging Legs and Abs Workout Uses a Wall as the Only Equipment)
Toe Pull Calf Stretch
Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Lean forward as far as you can, wrapping your hands around the arches of your feet if possible. Flex your toes towards your body until you feel tension in your calf muscles and hold.
Cross-Over Calf Stretch
In a standing position, cross your right leg over your left, with your feet close together, and then slowly roll your upper body down toward the floor until you feel a gentle stretch (not pain!) along the back of left leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs, repeating twice on each side.
The Drop-Off Calf Stretch
Start standing on one leg on a stair or curb, with your heel hanging off the back (same starting position as for the single-leg raisers). Gently press your heel toward the ground until you feel a gentle pull along the back of your lower leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Then slowly bend your knee slightly, until you feel the stretch move lower on the calf. Hold 30 seconds. Switch legs, repeating twice on each side.
Okay, this one doesn’t quite fit the bill for how to stretch your calves—but it will strengthen your legs’ backside muscles (which can be equally as important!). Stand on one leg on the edge of a stair or curb. Your forefoot should be on the step with your heel hanging off the back. Gently lower your heel toward the ground, and then slowly lift back up so that your body weight is on the ball of your foot. You may lightly touch the stairway railings for balance, but don't put weight on your arms; your calf muscle should be doing the work. Start with 5 reps on each side, and build up to three sets of 10 to 15 with each leg. Want more work? These yoga poses will also seriously sculpt your calves.