I’ve started to run again, which means waking up some muscles that have gotten a bit complacent. Like my calves. Two things come in to play here: One, it’s been over a year since I’ve done any running at all. That means my “runs” are evenly split between walking and running, and for some odd reason, I tend to choose the uphill stretches for running. Running uphill always wakes up my calves. Two: I run in vibrams. You know, those funny looking shoes with individual toes. I love them. (I won’t go in to the philosophy behind them – if you are interested, you can do an internet search for vibrams and barefoot running – there is plenty of discussion out there on that topic.) For the purposes of this post, you just need to know that vibrams take some getting used to. It’s been a while since I’ve worn mine, so between the vibrams and the return to running, my calves are talking!
They are begging to be stretched, opened, and released. Who am I to deny them? Of course, I will comply – I can’t do anything until they are satisfied! So, stretching after my morning runs is quickly turning in to a calf-focused yoga sequence. Here (more or less) is what it looks like.
I begin with a simple runner’s stretch against the wall. This is the first step – to go straight into a yoga pose with tight and sometimes spasming calves can be counter-productive, so some simple easy stretching first is useful. You all know this one – place your hands on the wall and step one foot back. Bend the front knee and press back through the back heel. Start gently, and ease into the stretch. Going in to the stretch too quickly or too forcefully can cause the muscles to tighten up even further.
When my calves feel ready, I come in to Tadasana – Mountain Pose. I like to take a few moments here to move the calves around a bit – Lift the heel of one foot, then the other, going back and forth and just moving the calves around gently in whatever way feels good.
Prepare for a sun salutation. Inhale hands up over head, and exhale into a forward fold. Step or jump back to plank. Pause here, and continue to breathe. (Hold the pose, not the breath, as my friend and teacher Deborah Nicholson often said.)
I align my plank so that my shoulders are over my wrists. Inner arms press toward each other (without actually moving) so that my chest muscles are active and supportive. Belly muscles are lightly active as well. This helps prevent sinking into a sway-back position. Once I feel well aligned and supportive, I press back through the calves. Legs lengthen and lift. Sometimes I feel a stretch in the calves here, sometimes not. It’s ok if you don’t feel much – you are just beginning to open the calves.
I hold my plank pose for as many breaths as I want to. When ready, I continue through a flow: down through chaturanga, inhale to upward dog or cobra and then exhale back into a downward dog.
Now, I add a runner’s stretch to my downward dog. This feels really great. Press one heel toward the floor while bending opposite knee, then alternate. I love this stretch. You can go back and forth a few times, pausing and moving as feels right. It feels really great to let your hips get in to the action too – this is super for warming through hamstrings and hips. Ah, this feels so good! My whole body loves this one!
After luxuriating in the above wagging dog, I take a full downward dog, and allow both heels to gently sink toward the floor. If you do this, really feel the backs of your legs beginning to lengthen. Don’t let your tail bone sag – keep it pressing up toward the ceiling. Dont forget to keep your low belly slightly engaged so your back doesn’t sway excessively. I just hang out here for a while, taking long deep breaths, and letting my calves slowly begin to open.
From downward dog, I step my left foot forward into a high lunge. Here’s what to look for in a high lunge: keep a long line through your body as you press back through the right leg. Look back to be sure your toes are pointed forward, then press your heel back, lengthening through the calf. Ahhhhh….. lovely stretch. I like to feel the lengthening through my entire leg, and if I keep my belly lightly engaged I can also feel the groin stretch and open (tight calves can lead to tight psoas muscles…. everything is connected!).
From my high lunge, I turn my back foot out in preparation for Warrior I, and press my heel down into the floor. Before coming up, I really pay attention to my calf lengthening, and the steadiness of my legs. I ground down, pressing through both feet, and lift up into Warrior I. Just breathe. I love this pose for opening the back calf.
I bring my hands down and bow forward, hands to the floor and I am back in a high lunge. Step back to plank, and I take the vinyasa flow through chaturanga, updog, and back to downward facing dog. Ah….. calves are starting to feel really good!
From downward facing dog, I step forward with my right foot and complete the entire sequence on this side.
After completing the sequence on the second side I come back into a full downward dog. What a difference! My calves are soooo happy after this sequence. They feel much more open with less tendency to contract into pain. Lovely!
I just made this sequence up on the spot after a run, so feel free to use it and change it to better suit you. Add in any other poses or flows, and work your way back to tadasana, or even down to a lovely savasana (which feels really good after a run inspired yoga session!) There are some wonderful floor stretches for calves too… but I will save those for another post.
Feel free to add your variations in the comments below – how do you like to stretch your calves?
Alright, this being the internet, I should probably include a disclaimer: This is simply my sequence, designed for use by me. The techniques and suggestions presented here are not intended to substitute for proper medical advice. Yoga poses are best learned in person from a qualified instructor who can guide you in proper alignment. If you choose to follow this sequence, please listen to your body, and do not do anything that causes harm or pain. In other words – always listen to your body, and trust your inner guide. You know better than I do what is ok for you!
~ peace ~