1. Foam rollers are showing up in gyms all over the world and becoming a popular component to nearly any type of fitness regimen. But like my motto goes, “Burn your foam roller and give your tennis ball to the dog!”
2. A majority of the more superficial muscles in the body can be self treated using a few simple tools, but leave the foam roller and tennis ball for warm-ups and self-maintenance. If your lower legs are becoming dysfunctional and painful, you have to step up your soft-tissue game!
3. First, learn the basics; Focus on small areas and resolve them one by one, slacken the muscle while maintaining relaxation in the tissue, position your body comfortably in a near neutral position, and roll between muscles to break up connections between unwanted sections of tissues. Foam rolling shouldn’t be forgotten quite yet, this is step one.
4. Maxed out on what you’re capable of doing with the roller? Time to break out the tennis ball and hit these tissues with a more acute contact point. But you know what’s more acute than a ball…? Your fingers!
Thank God this trend is finally catching on, and no, I am not talking about Crossfit! Self-sufficient soft tissue techniques such as foam rolling and trigger point massage are showing up in gyms all over the world and becoming one of the more popular programming options in any type of fitness regimen.
For many, foam rolling and other self myofascial release (SMR) techniques can be an absolute game changer for both performance and tissue health. If you are new to the soft-tissue scene, a great place to start is the muscles of the lower leg.
Learning how to properly manipulate these tissues in the calf and achilles region can relieve tightness, soreness and dysfunction in one of the most overused regions of the body.
Learn the basics of foam rolling, and maybe slip the tennis ball in there! Once you have mastered these novice moves, it will be time to step up your soft tissue game with the more effective and efficient Hands-On SMR Techniques for the lower leg!
Foam Rolling Basics
A majority of the more superficial muscles in the body can be self treated using a few simple tools. No matter the tool of choice, there are a few basic guidelines to make sure you are treating your tissues effectively. We are all busy, and it is unacceptable to waste away your precious training time rolling around the ground with no rhyme, reason or result. Here’s where to start:
1. Position the roller directly over a tight spot in your tissues also known as a trigger point. This will be your starting point for that specific portion of the tissue. Using 1-2 inch oscillations on and off the trigger point, cover only approximately 3 inches of tissue at a time. **Focus on small areas and resolve them one by one**
2. Actively relax the tissue that is being rolled while still placing them on a relatively passive stretch. This will decrease the active tension of the tissue, and allow the roller to really do it’s job by manipulating these tissues. It is important to remember to attempt to relax the entire region of the body you are working on, for example, the knee and ankle joints while working on the muscles comprising the calf. **Slacken the muscle, and maintain relaxation in the tissue**
3. Position your upper body and core in as neutral as position as possible while working on tissues of the rest of the body. Getting into a great starting point allows the focus to be put on the rolling itself, not the ab workout you are putting yourself through secondarily! **Get comfortable and keep your focus on the tissues being targeted**
4. Find areas in-between adjacent muscle tissues to roll and separate. In my professional opinion, this may be the most important aspect of self myofascial release. We ultimately want our tissues to work independent of each other when actively contracting. If an adjacent or overlaying tissue is “stuck” to the muscle being contracted, there will not be a natural pathway for movement. Over time, as more and more tissues become fibrotic and sticky to those around it, movement patterns will suffer, causing chronic pain, dysfunction and overall reduction in performance. **Don’t just treat over the muscle, treat in-between**
But First, Lets Review The Movement Anatomy
The posterior aspect of the lower leg is comprised of three main muscles; the medial and lateral heads of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These muscles work both independently and synergistically with each other according to the relative position of the knee during these muscular contractions.
The gastrocs function as the primary plantar flexor of the foot and ankle when the knee is positioned close to full extension, and the soleus, which is a single joint postural muscle that plays a key roll in both plantar flexion of the foot and ankle with a bent knee along with overall stability of the knee and ankle joint while in a standing position.
The forgotten muscle of the posterior lower leg is the plantaris. This tiny muscle, or tendon as some refer to it as plays a minor roll in dynamic movement due to it’s small size, but functions as a primary sensory tissue that controls contraction rates and tension throughout the entire posterior group of muscles.
All together, this group can be referred to as the triceps surae group. Now that we have a little anatomy under our belts, lets jump into specific techniques for foam rolling these specific structures.
Foam Roll – Soleus
The soleus is located below the two primary calf muscles. This muscle is very important to self treat due to it’s high postural demands.
Roll from the bottom section of the achilles tendon all the way up the lower section of the calf muscles. Make sure to roll directly over, to the medial side and to the lateral side to cover the entire muscle.
Note that most tightness will be found just underneath the calf muscles in the junction between the muscles. See the video below for exact and detailed positioning
Foam Roll – Medial Gastrocnemius
The calf muscles, also known as the medial and lateral calf muscles are the prime movers of the ankle joint, along with secondary movers of the knee. They are also the most superficial muscles of the lower leg, making them a bit easier to manipulate than other tissues of the body.
For the medial calf muscle, position the roller over the medial aspect of the lower leg, and roll from the crease of the knee, to the top of the soleus.
Make sure to cover the connection between the soleus and the medial calf. This is again where a majority of the tightness will present.
Foam Roll – Lateral Gastrocnemius
Use the same body position as the medial gastroc, but position the roller over the lateral side of the lower leg.
While rolling this region, you can concentrate on the lateral gastroc itself (crease of knee to upper portion of soleus), and onto the connection between the lateral calf and the muscles of the lateral lower leg (the perroneal group).
Effective and efficient rolling will allow scar tissue break up at these adjacent muscle connections.
Lacrosse Ball – Intramuscular Junctions
If you have mastered the foam rolling techniques as detailed above, a great way to progress and really hit some deep and tight trigger points is the use of a lacrosse ball in place of a foam roller.
Due to the smaller diameter of the ball, the apex of the curve is smaller and can sit into more acute tissue trigger points. The best place to use the ball is between muscle tissues, especially the soleus and the calf muscles.
A heavy trigger point I see in most athletes is the junction between the medial and lateral calf muscles where the connection of the soleus inserts. Remember that tiny tendinous muscle, the plantaris? Give this one a shot, it may make you tear up a bit!
Why Hands-On SMR Techniques?
I am a huge believer that the richer the sensory experience that you provide the body, the more quickly it will respond to treatment. As for Hands-On SMR, there may be no better way to create this dynamic sensory atmosphere than these techniques.
The dual loop feedback between the sensory that you are receiving through the targeted tissues along with the tactile sensory that is coming up back through your hands and fingers is pretty powerful. Even the best practitioners in the world cannot feel what you feel. Expanding your knowledge, skill set and mastery of these techniques hold the possibility huge dividends.
Hands-On SMR Techniques – Soleus
In the video below, I bring you though the exact execution of a Hands-On SMR Technique specific to the soleus. From runners to lifters, this muscle can get pretty dysfunction from our daily postural demands. Check it out below.
Putting It All Together
For rolling programs focusing on injury prevention, warm-ups and overall lower leg tissue health, consistency and frequency are the two variables that need the extra focus. Use this order of rolling:
Specific Trigger Points
Hands-On SMR Techniques
Foam rolling should absolutely be completed before any physical activity to simply increase local blood flow to these tissues. Rolling increases the tissue temperature, and aids in dynamic stretching of tissues in preparation for use and performance.
Rolling can also be very useful during recovery days. For chronic tightness, more frequency will be needed, so shoot for 3 times a day; first thing in the morning, before workouts, and before bed.
Each specific tissue should be treated for a minimum of 90 seconds at a time. Also, each trigger point that is identified should be manipulated for a minimum of 15 seconds. As for Hands-On SMR Techniques, focus 12-15 repetitions throughout the targeted tissue.
All these techniques accounted for, this program should only take 5-6 minutes total between the left and right leg for optimal results. Instead of wasting that six minutes half-assing your rolling throughout the entire body, it’s time to focus with pin point precision and actually yield some optimal results for all your hard work!
The practice of soft-tissue self-treatment has the ability to take your performance to the next level is executed properly. Adding quality to your tissues along with speeding up a recovery process after workouts and heavy bouts of use can aid in overall health and function.
The lower leg is a great way to introduce foam rolling into your routine using the basics of rolling form and procedure. Diversify your prehabilitation portfolio with the tennis ball and Hands-On SMR Techniques, and you will be well on your way to pain-free training for the long run. It’s as simple as investing a few minutes a day. Make the commitment and get after it!
Strength Extra – Prehabilitation of Calf Tightness
You know what combats tightness and dysfunction in the posterior chain of the lower leg? Strength in the anterior and lateral compartments of the leg.
The lateral compartment of the lower leg is comprised of the peroneal group. This group includes the peroneus longs and brevis which are meaty muscles that can be palpated throughout the outside of the leg.
Getting these muscles fired up can prevent chronic overuse syndromes of the calfs, strengthen and stabilize the ankle and knee joints, and translate into a more optimal performance.
Here’s how exactly to strengthen these muscles using banded resistance. Check out the video below.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL and MLB All-Star performers, and professionals from 11 different sports. He has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional physique athletes.
His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully implemented by over 25,000 athletes worldwide including his best selling training system Functional Power Training, which has revolutionized the way coaches and athletes develop strength, muscle and performance pain-free. Dr. Rusin’s work has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus.