Why should you worry about the soleus muscle or learn the soleus stretch?
Let’s paint this picture for you. Your run training has been going great, you feel strong on your workouts, you’re running faster than ever, and then suddenly, you start noticing a deep, nagging pain in your calf muscle. Despite regular stretching and foam rolling, the pain doesn’t seem to be getting any better until one day…. BAM… your calf cramps and tightens up and you end up limping home from your run.
If this sounds familiar, you may be dealing with a less common running injury deep in your calf muscle from the soleus muscle.
What is the soleus?
The gastrocnemius (or gastrocs) and the soleus muscles make the majority of the calf muscle. The soleus is the less popular and less well known of two calf muscles as it sits below and deeper than the gastrocs.
Both the soleus and the gastrocnemius help with plantar flexion (pointing the toes downward) of the foot and ankle. Both muscles originate off the Achilles tendon on the back of the lower leg, but the soleus, as the smaller and shorter of the two calf muscles, stops short of the knee and attaches high up on the tibia. The gastrocnemius splits into two heads halfway up the calf and then these two heads of the gastrocnemius cross the knee and attach to the distal part of the femur.
This difference in the location of the attachments of the soleus and the gastrocnemius is important especially in the case of trying to rehab, stretch, or strengthen the soleus muscle.
How to Stretch the Soleus
The soleus can be a little tricky to stretch properly, which is why many runners continue to have problems with their calf pain.
Bent-knee Standing Soleus Stretch
Most runners are familiar with the standard standing calf stretch with one leg behind the other and leaving forward until you feel the stretch in the back of the calf of the back leg. But this calf stretch primarily focuses on stretching the gastrocnemius calf muscle and not the deeper and shorter soleus calf muscle.
In order to focus your calf stretch on the soleus muscle, its important to bend the back knee. As the back knee bends, the gastrocs muscle will relax a bit since it crossed the back of the knee joint. With the gastrocnemius muscle relaxed, you should be able to focus your stretch on the soleus muscle. This bend-knee calf stretch won’t feel the same as the typical straight-leg calf stretch, and that’s a good sign that you are getting a good stretch on the soleus muscle.
Dorsiflexed Foot Standing Soleus Stretch
Another way of focused stretching the soleus is to use a wall to flex the foot while bending the knee and slowing leaning into the stretch. The bent knee allows the gastrocnemius to relax a little and also focuses the stretch on the soleus muscle.
Seated Soleus Stretch
This is an easy stretch to do while seated on an office chair or stool with wheels. while the foot flat on the floor and the knee bent, simply push forward slowly on the chair or stool and you should begin to feel the stretch in the calf.
Soleus Stretch with Band
If you’re suffering from a bad calf strain and having difficulty walking due to the pain, the Soleus Stretch with Band is one way to start rehabbing the calf and hopefully get you back to running a little quicker.
Use a foam roller or pillow under the knee to keep the knee flexed (which relaxes the gastrocs muscle) and loop the band around the foot. Pull the band to dorsiflex the foot (point the toes up) and you should feel the soleus stretch.
Soleus Exercises – Seated Calf Raises
Getting the soleus stronger should be the focus of any good post-rehab program for a calf strain. While many runners will due standing calf raises, that exercise will work both the gastrocnemius and soleus. Doing a seated calf raise relaxes the gastrocnemius and places the majority of the work on the soleus muscles. The seated calf raise is a great exercise for that runner that continues to have recurrent calf injuries since building up calf muscle strength may help prevent recurrent calf injuries.
How To Massage the Soleus Calf Muscle
Proper body work is important for runners and learning how to do your own massage, foam rolling, and trigger point release could be the difference between a successful running season full of PRs and steady improvement or nagging chronic injuries that limit your running.
Trigger Point Release of the Soleus Calf Muscle
Sometimes runners can develop trigger points or muscle spasms in the soleus and these trigger points in the muscle tissue tend to cause recurring issues with calf pain and cramping until properly treated. A good sports massage therapist should be able to easily identify both active and latent trigger points and work on myofascial release to resolve these trigger points. But I’ve also found that many runners can work out these soleus trigger points on their own at home once they learn the proper foam rolling or massage ball techniques.
The best book I’ve come across for learning how to self-treat trigger points is the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. It’s now in its third or fourth edition and this book has been one I recommend to any patients dealing with trigger point muscle spasms. The book is based on the two-volume medical textbook by Travel and Simon. Instead of almost $300 for the medical textbook, you can pick up the patient version with step-by-step approaches for dealing with trigger points anywhere in the body for about $20.
Soleus Calf Muscle Trigger Point Release Video
Foam Rollers and Massage Balls for Soleus Trigger Points
A foam roller should be an essential part of any runner’s rehab equipment but a trigger point massage ball can also be as valuable especially when trying to get pressure on deeper muscle trigger points in the soleus muscle.