Simple Stretches for Ankles and Calves

A commenter left a note on my blog recently asking for some stretches for the "tight calves and stiff ankles". Since I love writing these little therapeutic posts, here is my response!  I recommend doing these exercises at least once a day for maximum benefit.

I hope that these stretches will be helpful... And as always, I love hearing from my readers and am happy to respond to any ideas or suggestions that you'd like to see a post on. Namaste!

Exercises for stiff ankles

Since the ankles are a joint - and a pretty complex one - the main focus of exercising the ankles is on moving the joint through the full extent of their possible movement. This can be done sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor as shown in the photos below. Repeat each of the following exercises about 5 times.  It doesn't hurt to do this more than once a day, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.

Extension / flexion
Sitting on the floor with straight legs (sit up on a pillow if that's not comfortable), point and flex your toes.

Inversion / eversion
Next, bring the soles of your feet towards each other, and then press them away from each other.

Do circles with your ankles, trying to get as wide a circle as possible. Don't forget to do both directions!

Stretches for tight Calves

The main calf muscle is called the gastrocnemius muscle (say that three times fast!!), which originates at the back of the knee, and attaches to the heel via the Achilles tendon. Tightness in the calf muscle can limit the extension of the knee, and it's fairly common among anyone who practices bent-knee sports like running or cycling, or among people who spend a lot of time sitting down.

The best way to get good results with the calf muscle is from a straight-legged position, using a technique of facilitated stretching, which means alternating active engagement and passive stretching of the muscle.  Here are a few ways to do that.

Standing lunge

Stand about an arm's length from the wall and place both hands on the wall. Take a step forward with your left leg, keeping both feet pointing towards the wall. Make sure your right foot stays flat on the floor.

Now, press the ball of your right foot into the floor, using about 60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, relax your right foot and lean forward, bending your left leg, until you feel a stretch in the back of your right calf.  Keep the right foot flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for 6-10 deep breaths and then repeat on the other side.  Do each side 2-3 times.

Standing foot press

Stand about half an arm's length away from the wall. Bring your right foot forward and place the ball of your right foot on the wall, with your heel still touching the floor.

Now, strongly engage the calf muscle as if you wanted to draw your toes back and up towards your body. Keep engaging the muscle for 3-5 deep breaths, using about 60% of your maximum effort.

Then, relax your leg as much as possible and lean your torso into the wall, bending your elbows and lifting the up the back heel. Find a level of stretch that you can hold and stay for 6-10 deep breaths. Then repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-3 times.

Seated inner calf stretch

This pose uses the basic set-up of Janu Sirsasana (nose-to-knee pose), but instead of making it a forward bend, we are going to use the posture to get a nice deep stretch to the inner calf.

Begin by sitting on the ground with the right leg straight and the left knee bent. If you have tight hamstrings, sit up on a pillow (or several blankets) until you can get your leg comfortably straight, since the stretch won't work unless your right leg is straight.  You might also want to support your left knee. Then, take a towel, bathrobe belt or yoga strap and loop it around the ball of your right foot, like this:

Now gently pull the ball of your foot back towards your body as far as it will naturally go. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of the foot constant, press the ball of your foot strongly into the strap and extend through the heel.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your leg relax and keep it relaxed while you gently pull the ball of your foot further towards your body. Find a nice stretch and stay there for a few breaths. Repeat this 2-3 times for each foot.

Seated outer calf stretch

Yogis will recognise this posture as paschimottanasana, where typically we focus on forward bending. However, as in the previous pose, in this variation we're going to focus just on stretching the calves.

This is exactly the same as  the previous pose, except this time sit with both legs together. Loop your strap over the balls of both feet.  Using the strap, gently pull the balls of your feet back towards your body as far as they will easily go.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of your feet constant, press the balls of your feet strongly into the strap and extend through the heels.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your muscles relax as much as possible and carefully  pull the balls of your feet further back towards your body until you feel a deep but not uncomfortable stretch. Hold for 6-10 breaths, and repeat if you like, starting from your new maximum stretch position.

Downward-facing dog (modifications)

Downward-facing dog is the ultimate calf stretch - but only if you have the flexibility in the hips, shoulders and hamstrings to allow you to get into the proper pose.  Since many of us don't have that ability, here are some ways you can modify the pose to get a better stretch.

a) Do the pose with your heels against the wall, allowing you to press through the heels and stretch your calves.

b) Do the pose with some height under your hands (yoga blocks are good, or even a low coffee table) allowing you to stretch the heels towards the floor.

c) Get a friend to give you the following assist in the posture: when you are in downward facing dog, get your friend to stand behind you and loop a towel or strap around the tops of your thighs. Have your friend stand in a wide, stable stance with knees slightly bent, and gently pull the strap upwards and back. They may even be able to lean their weight back into the strap, giving your hamstrings and calves a nice, deep stretch.

An all around leg-restoring inversion

(Pic from Yoga Journal)

Anyone dealing with stiff ankles and tight calf muscles or hamstrings can hugely benefit from this simple, highly effective pose, called (creatively) "legs up the wall" pose. Practiced 5 minutes a day, this pose allows "stale" blood to return to the heart and when you are done, new, oxygen-rich blood flows into the legs, rejuvenating the muscles.  It also helps reduce swelling and varicose veins.  Here's how it works:

  • Lay down some padding on the floor next to a wall.
  • Sit sideways against the wall and lie down on your side
  • Gently bring your legs up the wall as you roll onto your back.
  • Play some gentle music, cover your eyes, and relax.
  • For an added calf stretch, get (or make) some sandbags and rest them on the soles of your feet.

To come down, first gently bend one knee and then the other to restore a bit of circulation.  Then slowly roll off to your side. Take your time coming back up so you don't get a head-rush!