A Better Calf Stretch to Decrease Foot Pain from Hiking
A lot of people that have had foot or heel pain have found that stretching their calves provides effective relief.
I’ve heard folks who had plantar fasciitis (pain on the bottom of the foot in front of the heel), metatarsalgia (pain across the ball of the foot) or achilles tendonitis (pain on the back of the heel) talk about the relief they’ve found from stretching.
What it looks like is that someone will go for a vigorous hike and, if they don’t stretch beforehand, they’ll end up with a particular pain that tends to show up for them with that activity…like one of the pains I mentioned above. Or maybe they find that they need to stretch after the hike, or maybe both before and after.
I think there is a way that this could be done more effectively, and also take less time. It can even be done proactively. So, if someone has never had foot pain before they can keep it from ever becoming an issue.
Want to know how?
The most effective form of stretching is one that involves deliberate engagement of the muscle being stretched.
In contrast most stretching is done passively, meaning with no particular attention to activating any of the relevant muscles.
To do this effective form of stretching for the calf you would press the bottom of your foot into the ground while lengthening your calf muscles. So if you were doing this as a lunge (one foot back one foot forward) you would be contracting your calf at the same time that you were dropping your rear heel closer to the ground.
Curiously, this motion looks an awful lot like the motion that does, or could, take place during the hiking itself. Particularly if you’re hiking up an incline.
What I’m suggesting is that you can eliminate or abbreviate the period of pre-hiking stretching in favor of this active stretch that you can incorporate into the activity itself. Instead of doing 5 to 10 minutes of therapeutic activity followed by 2 to 4 hours of potentially aggravating activity, you could do 2 to 4 hours of therapeutic activity. There will be more benefit in spending more time in a therapeutic activity while simultaneously eliminating an aggravating activity.
How to do that.
First, let’s play around with this while in a regular lunge position.
- Find a wall, bench or tree to press your hands into so you can focus on feet.
- Place your rear foot behind you and far enough away that your heel can reach the ground with a moderate stretch. How far back that is will depend on what that feels like for you.
- Press the bottom of the foot into the ground, pressing your hands against the tree/wall to help you. You’ll find that the force is mostly in the front of your foot.
- As you press the front of your foot into the ground, slowly drop your heel down.
- Now, staying in that position, lift (or attempt to lift) the front of your foot off the ground. This will feel like the weight has shifted to your heel. You won’t have much actual lifting happening, but you will be engaging the muscles on the front of your shin.
- Alternate between pressing the front of the foot into the ground while dropping your heel, and then lifting the front of the foot off the ground.
- Take as long as you need to with each phase to get the feel of it. Ultimately taking about 5 seconds per phase and doing 3 to 5 rounds.
If you regularly stretch with a more passive stretch how does this compare? I find that my own sensation of stretch decreases quicker with a few rounds of active stretching.
Now let’s take this to the trail. It will be more interesting if there is a trail with an incline that you can walk up.
- As your weight bearing foot ends up behind you, deliberately drop your heel down, just as you did when you were practicing in the lunge. You’ll feel a similar sense of the weight being in the front of your foot, while your calves are lengthening.
- Pick your foot up as usual.
- This time you’ll alternate from one foot to the other with your stretching instead of doing multiple rounds on the same foot. This way you can incorporate it into a normal walking gait.
You’re contracting your calves while they’re lengthening without making any special effort to do so, because your body gives you a controlled descent. If it didn’t, you would just slam your heel down with each step.
It’s not necessary to deliberately pull the front of your foot off the ground, because this is a reflex part of a walking gait. The front of the shin (which picks up the front of the foot) will automatically engage when you pick your foot up for your next step.
Instead of what I’ve just described, what I often see (and have done myself) is someone planting just the front of their foot on an uphill trail, and then maintaining that position through the entire weight bearing phase of their gait.
There are a couple of barriers that could get in the way of your being able and willing to add this extra motion to the heel with each step of a hike.
The first, is the restriction of shoes. You don’t usually stretch in hiking boots, right?
There will be a tendency not to want to drop the heel down because of the stiffness of the material against the foot. The more skin movement there is against a stiff material, the more friction there is, and that means blisters.
The other potential shoe problem is if there is a lot of material around the ankle, particularly in the front, that will get in the way of flexing your foot all the way. A lot of hiking shoes and boots pack a lot or material around the ankle.
The solution is to get a hiking shoe with soft upper material, and very little material around the ankle so that your potential movement isn’t blocked. Most shoes are not like this, so it will take some looking around to find something. (While you’re looking I’d also suggest that you get a shoe that doesn’t squeeze the front of your foot and doesn’t lift in the heel for reasons that I’ve outlined in another article.)
A few other considerations.
It might sound impossible to keep your mind on this new way of walking for an entire hike.
As with any new and strange activity, it will be awkward and full of effort at first, and gradually become easier and more natural. That’s normal.
It may be tiring.
We don’t start out doing 20 push-ups (or 1). We gradually work our way up to it over many sessions. This is the kind, gentle, effective way to relate with our body as it slowly expands its capacity at a rate that it can handle. More gentleness is better and more sustainable.
Just incorporate it into your hikes a bit here and there. The important thing is to know that this exists, to see the value in it and to start to practice.