Are Tight Calves Causing Your Gymnast’s Foot, Heel, And Knee Pain?

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One of the great things about working with gymnasts every day, is we find innovative ways to solve issues in the gym!

We find that gymnasts have a very high rate of foot, ankle, and heel and knee pain that are non-traumatic in nature.  Meaning, their injuries occurred over time and not with one specific instance.

We didn’t intend to find one common denominator, but we did!  And, we’ve found that it’s common to all of our gymnasts with foot, ankle, heel and knee pain.

What is this mystery component? Very tight calf muscles!

Your calves are made up of two very strong muscles: Gastrocnemius and Soleus Muscles.  They both have very distinctive and very important roles in gymnastics which include these components:

  • Pointing the toes!
  • Going into releve
  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Landing

Gymnasts are using these muscles with every activity they do in gymnastics!  So let’s break each one down and then talk about treatment to help eleviate these issues.

Gastrocnemius Muscle or Gastroc for Short

The gastroc is one of the most envied mucles on the plannet, and gymnasts all have amazing gastroc.  When do you see this muscle?  When women wear high heels!  When the gastroc is well developed (or artificially developed when wearing high heels), it makes the legs appear longer and stronger. It helps gymnast have the “long lines” appearance while performing.

The Gastroc muscle points the toes when the knees are straight.  It also gives that last flick of the feet when jumping and has the ability to produce much height on jumps when used right.

Soleus Muscle

So the famous saying goes, The gastroc for show and the soleus for GO!  And that sums up the soleus muscle!  It is the main mover when running and points the toes when the knees are bent.

It is an extremely powerful muscle but is not an aesthetically pleasing muscle to the eye, and when overly developed can cause very thick ankles.

Overuse of Calf Muscles

So when we look at the calf muscles as a group, and we realize how much use they receive in the gym, we have to think about what effect this might have on the body if they are left unattended.

When thinking about injury of gymnasts, we have to think what the weakest link is in their bodies.  For growing gymnasts this is usually growth plates.  It’s why gymnast experience experience heel pain at such a high rate.  This heel pain is also known as Sever’s Disease.  The growth plate in the heel is located just below where the calf muscles attach.

The other growth plates we see affected by tight calves are in the knee.  The growth plates effected are in the bottom of the knee, known as Osgood-Schlatters and in the knee cap/patella known as Sinding-Larson-Johansen Syndrome.  These conditions occur because the gastrocnemius muscle crosses over the knee joint.

When the growth plates in the foot/knee are not as active, or in our older gymnasts with closed growth plates, the tight calf muscles can create pain in the arch, both sides of the ankle, and can prevent gymnasts from landing properly which can create devastating knee ligament injuries and hip injuries.

Treatment for Tight Calves

So what can we do about this?  We have to get these powerful muscles to relax more, and use preventative measures to make sure their growth plates and ligaments stay strong.

Here is the Gymnast Care four step process to addressing tight calves:

  1. Use soft tissue technique/massage to address overly tight muscles. At home, you can use lotion and massage the calves while your gymnast actively moves their foot, or you can passively move your athletes foot in all ranges of motion.  Be gentle as 99% of gymnast’s calves are very tight and sore.  Massage from the knee to the heel bone being extra gentle over the Achilles’ tendon.
  2. Stretch the calves.  Wow!  If there was one thing we’ve seen neglected in gymnasts it would be stretching the calves.  Use this post from The X Brace as a reference to stretch your calves: http://thexbrace.com/stretching-your-calf-muscles-the-severs-disease-killer
  3. Use a cold water bath for your feet and calves to help decrease inflammation found in the foot/leg.  We like the commercial trash cans found in most offices (click here to get it on Amazon for $14.99).  Fill it with cold water, put the foot in, and then add a few ice cubes to help lower the temperature.  The bath does not have to be freezing to be effective contrary to popular opinion!
  4. We support the arches to make sure the foot is functioning properly.  Of course we use The X Brace and you can find it here: The X Brace, Arch Support for Athletes

If your gymnast is having pain that is intense in nature, and your doctor has diagnosed Sever’s or tight calves, follow this protocol every day but massaging every other day.  You can do steps 2 and 3 every hour, on the hour when your gymnast’s pain is flared up!  Just make sure the body has warmed back up before stretching again.  

We have had amazing results with this and we think you will too!  Remember, if your gymnast’s pain continues, you need to get professional help from your doctor.

Other treatment protocols we do with our athletes is ART and Graston technique.  If pain continues, you might want to find a practitioner that works in these techniques.

Thanks again for joining us and let us know if you have a technique that works well for your gymnast’s tight calves!

 

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Dr. Joshua Eldridge

About Dr. Joshua Eldridge

Dr. Joshua Eldridge has specialized in protecting gymnasts from injury. He is the inventor of The X Brace, and has developed a treatment protocol for Sever's disease and heel pain that has helped thousands of gymnasts throughout the world. Dr. Eldridge brings practical, easy injury care and prevention that can be done at home.