Should I Foam Roll My Tight Calves?

Is your calf just trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation?

It depends...Do you know why you are rolling something other than because it feels good? Or maybe it's even painful? Rolling your calves, if painful, could be doing more harm than good. What if I helped you work out exactly when it's okay to roll and when you should probably be doing something else? Want to know? Let's roll...

The point of this blog is not to debate if foam rolling (or any other self massage/release) for you calves (or any muscle group) is good or bad. My goal is to help clear up when foam rolling would be helpful and when it wouldn't. As with any tool, context and situation matters. Most people become interested in foam rolling to deal with muscle tightness or soreness. Some people may have had foam rolling recommended to help deal with an injury like Achilles tendinitis, a calf strain, plantar fasciitis, or even knee pain.

While most people would benefit in some aspect from foam rolling, it's more a question of how much value do you get from it, is it worth your time, and is there something better you could be doing?

To help simplify things, I'm going to create a few categories we can put muscle tightness into:

  1. General muscle tightness/soreness that is present generally throughout most muscle groups in the front AND back of BOTH legs following physical activity. We may consider this a normal part of post workout soreness, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

  2. Muscle tightness/soreness that is present more noticeably in one leg, or one group of muscles in the front OR back of your body. These areas will be noticeably tighter than other muscle groups.

a. This may be considered normal if you had done a workout/activity that targeted particular muscle groups more heavily that others. An example would be doing a bunch of calf/heel raises, jumping rope, and nothing else. You may also be able to notice this type of soreness more if you are doing something outside of your normal routine that has you using your body differently than you are accustomed.

b. This would become not ideal if this muscle group is the same one that gets tight and sore pretty much no matter what you do, whether it's running, walking, hiking, doing a whole body workout, squats, "leg day", etc. Over time you will become more and more aware that this tightness is a constant companion and is the thing that holds you back from doing more.

  1. Tightness that you were generally not aware of...until you started foam rolling. Sometimes it can be quite surprising how much something can hurt when it doesn't really bother you otherwise. Foam rolling can do some detective work for you and make you more aware of your body. This seems to be tightness that doesn't seem to be holding you back much, but it could it's related to an injury/pain that you are experiencing.

If you identify with 1 or 2a, foam rolling is looking like a good option. This is especially true if you are wanting something more effective than traditional static (held) stretches to include in your warm-up, or something that enhances recovery and reduces post workout soreness so you can be ready for your next workout or planned physical activity.

If you identify more with 2b, it's more likely that foam rolling is providing an incomplete and likely temporary solution. Foam rolling may help things a bit, but it's likely that over time the same pattern of soreness will keep coming back. That initial progress you made when you started won't feel as meaningful after a while and you may no longer be making progress towards having it go away for good. At this point, a lot of people just assume that this is just how it's going to be. "I guess I just have tight calves."

Now let's talking more about calves...that is the title of the blog after all!

We put a lot of demand on our calves and they play a huge 'roll' (ha!) in everything we do while on our feet. The simplest way to explain what calves are doing is to say that they are in a constant game of Red Light, Green Light.

Red Light! They help absorb shock when we walk, run and jump. Green Light!..they help push our bodies forward when we walk and run. Red Light!...they help us slow ourselves to a stop...Red Light!..did I get you!? Well, I probably at least made you lean forwards a bit and you can could feel your calves and toes pushing into the ground to keep you from falling forward.

When we stand, our calves keep us from falling forwards. Tightness in one calf likely means you have more forward weight on that foot and stand with that hip just a bit further forward or stand with one knee that isn't quite as straight as the other. Tightness in both calves may mean you stand with either your hips, shoulders, or head far enough forward that your calves have to correct course to stay upright. Your joints are no longer balanced on top of each other and your calves have to push back to keep you from leaning even further forward. Your calves never get a chance to relax. When they are always trying to slow you down, they get less good at the timing and organization required to push you forward and absorb shock because they are too busy keeping you from leaning or moving too far forwards. This is where interesting toes, bunions, and all sorts of body aches and pains are born, not just limited to the legs.

This is the type of thing that foam rolling doesn't fix. If you've never rolled them before, it will feel like it helps relax your muscles. But then you get back onto your feet and they are back to the same job and will eventually keep getting tight unless you change how your body's bones and joints are stacked up. Your calves will stay busy until you give them less work to do. When we have tightness in our body, it means we are struggling with something. Foam rolling won't help our body get better at the thing we are struggling with.

So you have a 'green light' for foam rolling (as long as you aren't mashing on any major blood vessels or nerves), but don't think of it as something that will solve a posture or movement problem. It is more of an aid or supplement to an active lifestyle and not specific enough to be a stand alone solution for all types of muscle tightness. Trying to figure out what job the calf muscles are either doing too much of or not doing very well at least gives you a starting point to find a more meaningful and useful solution to your body.

To figure out what a calf is doing, I like to also figure out what the body is doing. Finding your hidden muscle soreness (type 3 remember?) might be an interesting way to look in on your body. You can use a foam roller to figure out what muscles are doing extra work, but just aren't complaining about it..yet.

Also, foam rolling should NOT be painful. This is not a game of "no pain, no gain." Be kind to your body. You only get one.

It's always a very helpful process to understand why a muscle feels tight and do something productive about it. Who wants to foam roll the same muscle for the same problem the rest of their life to keep it loose?...not me. It's a fun part of my job to help people figure this out so they can move on with their lives with one less thing to worry about.

Bonus Video