A common question asked in the running world is “do you stretch?” More often than you think, the answer is “yes”. Quickly followed by, “but only my calves”.
Great – stretching is rarely a bad thing. But the way the lower leg muscle group tends to be stretched can be woefully inefficient. A lot of people are really good at stretching ONE of the main lower leg muscles. The other one, (in some peoples opinion, the more important one) doesn’t even get a look in, despite the fact it is used for the majority of force when running.
Running on cold muscles is not the greatest thing in the world, but running on cold muscles when you THINK they have been warmed up is probably a whole lot worse. The same goes for warming down. Imagine thinking you had warmed down and stretched out your muscles after exercise, but in fact you had only done half a job. You’d start wondering why your muscles hurt even though you’ve done everything you’re meant to have done?!
Here’s a quick physiology lesson for you. (you can also check this out on the plantar fasciitis post as its quite relevant to that subject as well).
There are a number of smaller muscles deep inside the leg, but we are going to concentrate on the Triceps surii. The Gastrocnemius and the Soleus.
Everyone should know what the Gastrocnemius looks like. It’s the one you always see on skinny-ass runners and cyclists as they strain their way up a hill. Tour de France riders have ridiculously well developed Gastrocnemius.
Showing the Triceps Surii. The muscle coloured Black is the Gastrocnemus. Note how it attaches above the knee joint. You can just about see the Soleus (in red), but there is a better pic of that below. I’m pointing out the Gastrocnemius on our leg model. (TdF athletes MAY have a slightly more well developed musculature)
The Gastrocnemius muscle attaches to the foot via the achillies tendon, and to the leg at the top ABOVE the knee.
This is quite an important distinction. The muscle itself is actually quite a thin muscle and does not run all that deep into the leg. However, it does look pretty impressive when it is tensed.
The Gastrocnemius is the muscle everyone knows about and the muscle everyone thinks is stretched when they do the calf stretch. (and they’re right).
Soleus is the muscle that is always forgotten.
Soleus is deep to the Gastrocnemius and is actually a larger, thicker muscle. You can’t see it from the back because the Gastrocnemius is so showy that it completely covers it over. However, the Soleus actually takes up 52% of the calf space, and while Gastrocnemius produces force of up to 3x body weight, Soleus does so up to 8x body weight. So it is a fairly useful muscle to be taking care of.
The Soleus also attaches to the foot at the bottom of the achillies tendon. just the same as the gastrocnemius.
At the top is a very different story. The Soleus attaches BELOW the knee. That is one of the most important distinctions between the muscles.
The Soleus muscle blends with the Calcaneal (achilles) tendon, and attaches BELOW the knee, on the top of the Tibia and Fibula.
What difference does it make?
Well, when the leg is straight, you stretch the Gastrocnemius beautifully. However, when the leg is straight, because all that is going on, the Soleus doesn’t actually get a look in as it attaches below the knee, so even though you SWEAR that you always stretch out your calves, you’ve really only done half a job.
So how do you stretch Soleus?
When you stretch out in a “calf-stretch” the back leg is straight- right? Right. For half the time. This is the classic stretch that everyone does, and its brilliant.
Stretch 1- the one you always do. Stretches out the Gastrocnemius
Once you have stretched that, rock back on to the back leg so that it is BENT. You will feel the muscle stretch/ache in a slightly different place.
That is the Soleus.
Stretch 2- notice how the back leg is bent- that is stretching the Soleus.
Stretch that one as well.
And on the other leg.
NOW you have a slightly better set of legs. Go Play.
Just as a bonus- an extra stretch for the soleus, the rear heel isn’t touching the ground, but it is being pushed down toward it. Be sensible and don’t hurt yourself stretching. Its meant to do you good, not break you.