Stiff calves tend to be a consequence of either remaining in one position for too long or of overstressing the tissues through exercise. Felt as stiffness, soreness, or tenderness in and around the muscles of the calves on the back of the lower leg as well as in the heel, this condition stems from too little or too much movement in the area. Although stiff calves are a normal consequence of activity and often a sign the muscles located there have had plenty of exercise, they can cause discomfort. Recommended treatments include stretching, massage, and the application of heat or a topical heat rub.
The major muscles of the calf, sometimes referred to as a single muscle group known as the triceps surae, are the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. These muscles point the foot downward at the ankle in a motion known as plantarflexion and therefore are highly active during movements like running, climbing, and jumping. They also help to reinforce upright posture by preventing the body from falling forward when standing. As they connect the back of the leg to the heel bone in the foot via a single large tendon on the back of the ankle called the Achilles tendon, the calf muscles do all these things by contracting, which causes the muscle to shorten and pull upward on the heel, hinging the foot downward.
Stiff calves are extremely common in recreational exercisers and athletes alike, since so many activities require the use of the calf muscles. Runners, basketball players, boxers, dancers, and anyone else who spends a great deal of time on their toes may be chronically afflicted by stiff calves. Similarly, individuals who strength train these muscles through exercises like seated or standing calf raises are likely to experience soreness or tightness in this area.
Referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this condition is felt in less than a day and lasts as long as three days after a strenuous workout, particularly among individuals who have not worked out previously or for some time. It is caused by microscopic tears in the muscle fibers that occur during exercise as the muscle resists forces acting upon it, whether from the body’s own weight or external resistance like a barbell. As the body naturally heals itself, the muscles adapt and grow stronger. This means the inflammation felt at the muscles is a positive, though often uncomfortable, response.
DOMS felt in the calves may be treated with stretching, massage, or soaking in hot water. Anything that encourages blood flow to the muscles may be helpful. Ibuprofen is not recommended for post-workout muscle stiffness, however, as the inflammation of the tissues is a necessary part of the adaptation process.
Stiff calves may also be an effect of remaining in one position for too long a period, particularly if the muscles have been recently exercised. An example is sleeping on one’s stomach: when lying face-down, the foot is placed in a plantarflexed or pointed position, which shortens the calf muscles. When attempting to stand up first thing in the morning, which elongates the calves, stiffness and tightness may be experienced in the muscles or near the Achilles tendon, making taking those first few steps somewhat difficult. Calf cramps in the night may also be experienced in this sleeping position, leading to calf stiffness upon waking.
A similar cause of stiff calves is wearing high-heeled shoes. This places the muscles in a constantly shortened position and therefore can cause tightness felt upon removing the shoes and stretching the muscles. The most recommended treatment for these causes of calf stiffness, aside from behavioral change, is massage and stretching, which sends blood flow and oxygen to the tissues and returns the muscles to their resting length.