One of the most common “not-so-hidden body connections” that I find – especially in runners – is the calf-to-plantar (sole of foot) connection. Many runners, including yours truly, have known the dreaded pain of plantar fasciitis.
Plantar fasciitis is commonly defined as an inflammation of the plantar fascia, which is the connective tissue on the sole of your foot; however, recent research also indicates that in addition to good old-fashioned inflammation, plantar fasciitis may also indicate a slow and steady degeneration of the plantar fascia.
If you don’t have firsthand experience with plantar fasciitis, consider yourself blessed. If you do, rest assured that there is hope beyond cortisone shots and surgery.
One of the major contributing factors to plantar fasciitis –tight calf muscles – tends not to show up in the body as pain, or at least not pain that we notice. So you may be walking around feeling no pain at all in your calves, but let a massage therapist start to work on them, and “yowza!” And all the while, your poor little feet had been the ones screaming in pain.
To understand this, let’s take a look at anatomy. The lower end of the Achilles tendon connects directly to the plantar fascia, while its upper end attaches to two primary calf muscles, namely the gastrocnemius (we’ll call it the gastroc) and the soleus. When these muscles get tight, they get short. When they get short, they tend to pull on the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon then picks on the plantar fascia, and in the end, you end up with inflammation in the plantar fascia and, if not treated quickly, potential degeneration of the plantar fascia tissue.
So, then, what to do?
If you are suffering from an acute case of plantar fasciitis, or if you have had it before and feel a flare-up coming on, here are some strategies you can try on your own:
- Calf stretches: After warming up, and post-exercise, stretch both of your major calf muscles (the gastroc, which is the big meaty one, as well as the smaller soleus, which sort of lies underneath and also below the gastroc). The gastroc is best stretched with the knee straight, while the soleus is best stretched with the knee bent. Trust me; you’ll feel the difference.
- Ice, ice, ice: This is the key to reducing inflammation. I suggest you try one or both of the following two methods:
(1) Get a 20-ounce Coke bottle (the brand matters, due to the shape and structure of the bottle), fill it with water, and put it in the freezer (with the cap off, as the volume will expand). Once frozen, roll it back and forth under your arch for a nice little ice massage!
(2) The more painful but perhaps more effective option is to put your foot in an ice bath once a day for about 10 minutes or until numb.
- Achilles tendon release: Push firmly on either side of your Achilles tendon to form it into a sort of S-shape. Hold for about 10 seconds and then reverse the direction of the ‘S,’ again holding for 10 seconds. Do this several times per day to help activate the proprioceptors known as Golgi tendon organs. These little guys’ job is to help “turn off” your calf muscles.
- Self-massage: There are so many products out there today, but for calves, many people prefer The Stick, which resembles a rolling pin in its form and function. There are also traditional foam rollers, The Grid, and countless other products available at your local running store.
- Footwear: Consider switching up your running or athletic shoes; perhaps you need extra padding or additional support. I recommend the folks at Fleet Feet, who will work with you to find the shoe that is best for you. And ladies, consider dropping the high heels. Also, consider seeing an orthopedist or podiatrist to see if orthotics might be an option for you. Both low and high arches are expected to be contributors to plantar fasciitis.
I encourage you to try any or all of the above. Figure out what works for you and stick with it. Be vigilant, for plantar fasciitis is a sneaky little devil. And, at the first signs of his return, choose your strategy and stay your course.
If you’ve suffered from plantar fasciitis, I’d love to hear what else you’ve tried and how it’s worked for you! Please share in the comments section below.