After yet another DNF at the Tarawera 100, I’ve recommitted to physical therapy. The left side of my body, plagued with injury since a 2015 car accident, is a total nightmare.
But where I see a nightmare, a physical therapist sees potential. Matt Smith of Revo Physical Therapy in Boulder, CO believes hip pain, back pain and even the precursors to plantar fasciitis can be alleviated by working on foot and calf mobility. Here’s what I’m focusing on to try to prevent future DNFs and keep my training relatively pain free.
It Starts in the Feet
Calf muscle contraction facilitates blood flow back to the heart. A little calf and foot rolling can be a good thing not just for your legs, but for your whole body.
Matt encouraged me to roll out my feet and calves before workouts and even before warmups. It shouldn’t be painful, but it also shouldn’t be comfortable. Matt recommended Roll Recovery R3, which are made specifically for the foot but a softball can work well in a pinch.
Once your toes are loose, you can move onto toe mobility. Mobility in your toe joints, primarily joints at the bases of your toes, let you roll smoothly from the outside of your foot to push off with your big toe as you step. This helps activate your glute and extend your hip for a more efficient and powerful stride. Mobilization of the toes is very effective in increasing range of motion through a workout and allows your calves to stretch and preload properly.
Athletes who are unable to extend or push off their big toe, tend to have tight ankles, calves, overdeveloped quadriceps and under-active glute muscles. If you suspect you have a tight-toe problem, sit on your feet with your toes flexed and hold for 30-90 seconds. It won’t feel great, but it’ll do the trick.
As Always, Look to the Core
Mat says that athletes with tight calves tend to have an arched back or anterior pelvic tilt. From about the middle of the spine down to the hips, it looks like everything is shifted forward. This posture causes excessive tension on the Achilles tendon, calf muscles and contributes to tight ankles.
If your posture appears to have a significant arch, the constant load put on the feet and calves negate the benefits of ankle mobilization exercises. You’ll want to address abdominal stability to help decompress the low back, take the pressure off the groin area and hip flexors.
Stretching the Calves
Often both the deep and superficial calf muscles get tight from being under load all day. Matt says stretching the calf muscles daily may help relieve the tightness. Matt encourages his clients to hold stretches between five to ten seconds. Calf stretches should be performed after rolling out and a proper warmup.