Why we don’t recommend stretches for calf strain
Will stretching a torn calf muscle help it? The short answer is maybe, but we don’t yet know for sure because the science is still inconclusive.
As experts in sports injury rehabilitation, we use the evidence available and our clinical experience and reasoning to determine what’s best for our patients with a calf strain.
Don't stretch your calf strain too early
The science behind stretching is varied and inconsistent
There’s no solid proof that all types of stretching works for everyone in the same way. It also does not indicate if stretching helps for muscle injuries like calf strains.
Based on this evidence, you can understand why there is no way to give broad recommendations reliably about stretching. So, we don’t. When it comes to stretching, we advise each patient on a case-by-case basis.
That’s why we’ve also designed the Exakt Health app’s treatment plan to suggest different types of stretches depending on your calf strain’s stage of healing.
Different stretches have different potential effects
We know that different stretches seem to be associated with a few specific benefits based on how they affect the tissues.
But with all the conflicting research, it’s not always easy to know what stretching protocol to follow and how to do it exactly right to get the desired benefit. The most common stretches we find in sport and their potential benefits include:
This is the classic “reach for your toes, hold for about 30-60 seconds, relax, and repeat” type stretch.
Static stretching has been said to:
- Increase flexibility
- Reduce muscle tension
- Aid relaxation
This type of stretching involves movements that take a muscle and joint through a range of motion and are repeated several times.
Dynamic stretching is said to help with:
- Increasing circulation and core temperature
- Stimulating the nerves in your muscles and joints that communicate with your brain
How stretches improve flexibility
Both dynamic and static stretches seem to work mainly on the connective tissue surrounding the muscles and the nerves rather than the muscle tissue. And their effects are short-lived.
Stretching (mainly static) has been shown to increase flexibility by increasing your stretch tolerance (how you tolerate it).
This means you become more flexible when you regularly stretch because you get more comfortable with stretching. Not because your muscles get longer like we were always told.
Stretching a torn calf muscle could do more harm than good
When you strain your calf, many people don’t realize that the muscle fibers stretch beyond their limits and physically tear apart. This results in bleeding into the muscle, pain and inflammation, and loss of function.
Stretching this injured area will only cause more damage to the tissues and increase your recovery time. Your calf muscle needs time to heal before any extra force is applied to it.
Calf needs to heal first
Never do calf stretches when there is still pain or inflammation in your calf.
Once the pain and inflammation subside, rather than stretching, a safer option would be to start with gentle range of movement activities of your foot, ankle and knee.
For example, foot circles, moving your toes up and down, and bending and straightening your knee as pain allows.
These activities will get the movement going in your foot, ankle, and knee. A crucial element for your recovery. In addition, it will help stimulate your circulation naturally in your calf without causing any significant strain or stress to the tissues.
Eccentric exercises tick more rehab boxes than stretches do for calf strain
A calf strain rehab program should aim to improve (among many other things) flexibility, strength, power, and control.
How many of those boxes do static or dynamic stretches tick? Maybe one. Flexibility.
Is there a better way to achieve these goals than simply stretching and hoping for the best?
Yes! With eccentric training you can.
What are eccentric exercises?
These are exercises where your muscle contracts (activates) while it lengthens.
Take a heel drop off the edge of a step, for instance. As you lower your heel down, your calf muscle is active and gets longer (placed in a stretched position).
As you bring your heel up and go onto your toes, the calf muscle is active, but this time it gets shorter. This is called a concentric contraction.
Why are eccentric exercises better than stretches at helping muscles recover and prevent injury?
When you build muscles with strengthening exercises, new muscle cells are formed in the direction of the force.
Eccentric exercises lay new muscle cells down in series (lengthways) and lengthen the muscle.
This gives them an advantage over static and dynamic stretching because they are strengthening exercises with a built-in stretch component. (And this stretch shows similar increases in flexibility to static stretching!)
Eccentric training increases:
- Muscle fiber length (It makes the muscle longer)
- Flexibility (It increases the joint range of motion)
- Power (It generates more force through a range of movement)
Why is this important for injury rehab and recovery?
Stretching a muscle without strengthening it leaves you vulnerable to injury.
Lengthening your calf muscle while strengthening the newly gained range helps develop movement control and coordination in that new range, which improves performance. This can also reduce the risk of injury.
Stretches may help increase your range of motion, but they cannot give you the same functional benefit as eccentric exercises because they don’t strengthen the muscles through the new range. It’s like laying a railway track with no sleepers to support it.
Benefits of eccentric training
Stretches vs. Eccentric exercises
From a muscle recovery and training perspective, compared to static or dynamic stretches, eccentric training has the following benefits:
- A functional benefit – The changes made to the muscle structure improves performance (because the muscles become longer, stronger, more controlled and coordinated).
- Time-saving benefit – As a “2-in-1” exercise, it takes less time to get the same level of flexibility.
- Long-term benefit – The fact that structural change occurs means the benefits last longer and are not easily or quickly reversed.
If eccentric exercises have so many more benefits, should we stop stretching altogether?
No. Often in injury rehab, it’s not an all-or-nothing approach. Most times, you need to weigh up the pros and cons and find the combination of stretching and exercises that work best for you.
Here are a few example scenarios:
- If you want to build strength AND gain flexibility after a calf strain, eccentric exercises might help you achieve this sooner.
- If you’re looking to increase flexibility, reduce tension or get the calf muscle to ‘relax and let go,’ static stretches after activity may be the better choice. Hold for 30 – 60 seconds, release, and repeat 3-5 times after every workout. But this is only appropriate in the later stages of rehab.
- If you aim to fire up the calf muscles and get them ready for training, then sport-specific movements and active stretches would work well. Some research suggests that fast bouts of dynamic stretches for longer than 2 minutes before activity may have a positive impact on performance on that activity.
- If you want to combine both types of stretches into your warm-up routine, add static stretches before the dynamic activity. Make sure to keep any static stretching holds below 30 seconds. This reduces your risk of strength and performance decreases associated with static stretching.
Stretching should be highly individualized
Approaches to stretching are changing.
There’s a move from a mandatory and “one size fits all” philosophy to an optional and more individualized approach. Where stretches are adjusted to your stage of healing, type of activity, level of training, and previous conditioning.
For example, a runner who stretches in the early phases of his calf strain injury will use different stretches in his final rehab stage.
Also, should you choose to stretch, your pre-run stretches will be different from post-run stretches. And the stretches you do before sprint workouts will differ from the ones you do before easy runs.
As you can see, needs change.
Stretches that are appropriate for your calf strain may not be for your friend’s. Additionally, those stretches that work for you today may not work for you at a later stage.
From this article, you’ve learned stretches aren’t always the only option for helping a calf strain. Instead, a better solution may be eccentric exercises added to a progressive strengthening program and combined with a highly individualized stretching routine.
If you’re looking for an easy way to rehab a calf strain, where all the planning and thinking is taken care of, we can help!
The Exakt Health App incorporates what you need precisely when needed, keeping your recovery smooth and on track. So, download it now and move forward from your calf strain injury!