How to Foam Roll Tight Calves
Reviewed by Nic Bartolotta, MPT, HHP
Calves are one of the most active muscles in the human body, helping you stand, walk, and even travel up stairs. As a result, they’re also one of the most commonly overused muscles, especially for athletes.
And because they’re constantly in use, treating pain and tightness is difficult. Stretching can be effective but over only a long period of time. The most effective way to improve flexibility and loosen tight calves is with a foam roller. But how exactly do you foam roll for best results and without injuring yourself?
Our resident physical therapist Nic Bartolotta, MPT, HHP is going to teach you how to foam roll your calves with the Rolflex deep tissue massager.
Benefits of Foam Rolling Your Calves
Your calves help you walk, run, and jump – without them, you wouldn’t be able to stand up straight. And if your calves are tight from overuse, injuries, or general lack of flexibility, foam rolling will help alleviate your calf pain and tightness. Among other benefits, foam rolling your calves helps:
- Relieve tension that impacts your ability to walk, run, and jump
- Reduce muscle fatigue and improve recovery times after training
- Increase flexibility and range of motion that will allow you to run faster and jump higher
- Prevent injuries like muscle strains caused by chronic tightness
But why is a foam roller more effective than stretching?
Stretching is an effective way to improve flexibility and partially reduce soreness in fatigued muscles. But stretching is unable to target the myofascial layer surrounding the muscle, the connective tissue that causes soreness. But by massaging the muscle with a foam roller, you can break down this tissue and effectively eliminate soreness and improve your calves’ range of motion.
Calf Physiology: Structure & Function
Before we dive into the foam roller technique, it’s important to understand the structure and function of the calf muscle. If you’re dealing with calf pain or tightness in a specific region of the muscle, this should help you learn why.
The calf muscle is composed of two muscles – the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the visible muscle just below the skin, composed of two parts or “heads” that form a diamond shape. The soleus lies underneath the gastrocnemius, closer to the center of the leg. It’s a smaller, flatter skeletal muscle that is responsible for upright posture.
The two muscles connect at the base of the calf via the Achilles tendon, which transfers the power and energy from the calf through the ankle and foot so that you can run, jump, and walk. And just below the knee, the smaller soleus muscle attaches to the tibia and fibula. The larger gastrocnemius connects to the inside & outside of the femur.
How to Foam Roll Tight Calves & Treat Muscle Injuries
Warm up the calf with long foam roller strokes
Position the Rolflex so that the contoured foam roller sits directly on the calf muscle. Begin massaging the entire length of your calf with long, broad strokes. Apply moderate pressure as you foam roll the muscle, making mental notes of areas that are more sensitive than others. These are called trigger points; we’ll come back to these shortly.
Switch to the front and hit the anterior tibialis (shin muscle)
To effectively release the tension and alleviate pain in your calf muscles, you must first loosen the opposite muscle, the anterior tibialis. This muscle on the front of your shin is responsible for dorsiflexion, the movement where your toes are drawn upwards to your shin. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to run, jump, or even walk.
Place the colored contoured foam roller just to the outside of your tibia and massage the anterior tibialis for 30 seconds. If you notice any sensitive areas while doing so, hold the foam roller in place and flex your foot up and down 5-10 times. This is called active release therapy (ART). Applying pressure to the muscle while taking it through dorsiflexion (toes pointed up) and plantar flexion (toes pointed down) breaks down the hard myofascial tissue that surrounds the muscle. Myofascial release expands your muscle’s range of motion and breaks up scar tissue in your anterior tibialis which will enable you to effectively foam roll your calves.
Repeat this process for each trigger point on your shin, then flip the Rolflex over so that the contoured roller is positioned on your calf.
Use ART to break down the myofascial tissue in your calves
Now that you’ve warmed up both the front and back of your lower leg, it’s time to foam roll the calves using the same ART technique as before. Place the contoured roller over one of the trigger points on your calf muscle and flex your foot up and down to break down the myofascial tissue. You should begin to feel immediate relief as you release tension from your calves. Repeat this for 5-10 reps on each of the sensitive areas.
Foam roll the top of the calf muscle
You’re almost done. To finish up, you’re going to massage the top of your calf where it connects to your upper leg.
Slide the Rolflex up so that the foam roller sits directly behind the knee. Squeeze the handles to apply light pressure and flex your ankle up and down to stimulate ART. Again, perform 5-10 repetitions of these movements. Avoid applying too much pressure as you could damage the ligaments & tendons in your knee.
Repeat this process on both the left and right leg. Each leg should take just 2-3 minutes each.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should you foam roll your calves?
Yes, foam rolling your calves is an effective way to reduce muscle soreness, shorten recovery times, and improve athletic performance. It’s also an effective way of treating injuries like Achilles tendonitis, patellar tendonitis, and shin splints.
However, there are situations where you should not foam roll your calves. For example, if you recently strained or injured your calf, foam rolling the muscle will only worsen the injury. As a rule of thumb, it’s safe to treat your calves with a foam roller if they’re sore from exercise but not if they’re sore from injury.
How long should you foam roll calves?
You should foam roll each calf muscle for no more than 2-3 minutes, which is exactly how long the Rolflex technique should take you.
How do you release tight calves with a foam roller?
The best way to release tight calves with a foam roller is with active release therapy, a technique that relieves deep tissue tension by breaking down the myofascial membrane surrounding the muscle.