This blog post came out of the Facebook Live I did on 10 July 2020. If you want the exercise video you can sign up for it here (from 10 July 2020).
Your calves (not the cute furry kind), are the backs of your lower legs. If I was to chop one of your lower legs in half, roughly about two thirds of the way up, it would look a bit like this…
Not the best drawing you’ve ever seen, I know. The green bits are your tibia and fibula, the big and little bones of the lower leg, the red stuff is the muscles, orange fat, and blue skin. If you look closely you’ll see some purple dots and that’s the fascia separating the compartments. The take home, however is just how much there is going on down there (and I haven’t put every muscle on there) and it’s all very tightly packed in.
If you know me, you know I love feet. Feet dangle off the end of your leg, connected to your calf and lower leg by your ankle. That’s the anatomy bit done. Your feet and the muscles that connect from your lower leg to your foot are what help you walk and run. The springier your feet and calf muscles the more efficient you will be as a runner. The weaker and tighter your feet and calves, the less efficient you’ll be as a runner and instead of gliding when you walk and bouncing lightly when you run, instead you will thud, land more heavily which, if you have a pelvic floor issue is likely to result in worsening of any urinary symptoms or feelings of heaviness etc.
Most people have tight calves. A tight muscle, unfortunately isn’t a strong muscle. Quite the reverse. All muscles have a range of motion in which they work best, the mid range. As an example, your bicep is strongest when your elbow is bent to 90degs. If your calves are tight, no amount of stretching is going to release them unless you look at why they’re tight in the first place.
So we return to the feet. Many of us fear an inability to walk and keep our independence as we age, but yet none of us really give our feet much attention, despite them being the only thing that are going to help us keep that independence. If your feet aren’t strong and flexible, then your potential for a fall increases as you age, your pelvis has less stability as the base of support just isn’t there, and you’re more likely to suffer with knee pain, hip pain, lower back pain, arthritis of the hips and knees AND just because of how things are connected, more painful menstrual cycles, greater pelvic floor problems including incontinence etc. There’s a reason why the shuffling gait of the elderly, the walking frame etc. are often accompanied by adult nappies. If you’re watching those adverts on the telly at the moment that show Tena Silhouette, where they’re trying to make out that they’re a pair of knickers, I would like to invite you for a moment to consider that Pampers do the same thing… they’re just like a pair of pants for kids to pull up. Tena ‘knickers’ are an adult nappy. If you’re wearing pads to soak up urine that you can’t control, you’re already in the incontinent category – now imagine that 30 years down the line!
Incontinence might be common but it is NOT normal, and it can be helped if not completely resolved.
Back to the feet. Your feet have arches, those arches make your foot springy. When those arches aren’t there anymore it’s because the muscles of the feet that hold them up (and the muscles in the legs and hips) aren’t strong enough. You can absolutely get your arches back and strengthen these muscles by USING your feet. More below.
The feet are the farthest points of your body away from your heart. You might have heard of soldiers who stand to attention and lock their knees out they pass out. Your heart can only do so much pumping, it needs help to get the blood back up from your feet. The muscles in your lower leg help do that. To keep from passing out, you simply bend your knees a little and the micro-movements in the muscles is enough to keep the blood moving. The muscle in the lower leg most responsible for this is the soleus muscle (it’s the smiley looking sausage in the image above). The soleus along with the other muscles drain the foot and help the blood get back to the heart. Guess what happens when that pump doesn’t work right, either because the muscles of the calf aren’t working right, too tight, or the muscles of the feet and weak and pathetic? That’s right, no blood, no oxygen, no heat and therefore cold tootsies all the time. The lack of oxygen being delivered means that the muscles don’t get as much nutrition and therefore weaken further.
As you can see from my beautiful depiction, you have a lot more bulk on the back of the leg than the front. That’s because it is the back of the leg that propels you forward. It’s about a 10 to 1 ratio of strength on the back compared to the front, which makes sense because you need that power to walk and run. If the muscles on the back of the leg are too tight, or you’re someone who walks on their toes, or the muscles in the front aren’t strong enough, we get an imbalance of the strength in front to back. When that happens the stronger/tighter muscles begin to pull on their attachments to your shin bone and you get little fractures (also known as shin splints), when you run.
Restoring the balance of the muscles helps to restore the function of the foot and vice versa. When the foot is strong and mobile and able to contribute to moving you about, then the calf doesn’t have to work as hard and it doesn’t need to be as tight and overused.
Fixing the calves then involves using the foot, using the foot means getting your shoes off and walking barefoot on various surfaces. You can fake it to make and the accompanying movement video with this blog post shows you how.
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