The gastrocnemius has two short heads that extend halfway down the leg where they taper into the calcaneal tendon. The gastrocs give your lower legs their characteristic teardrop shapeliness. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscle form the “triceps surae,” but while the soleus is typically problem-free, the gastrocnemius is often an uncomfortable mess of adhesion.
The gastrocnemius is a total workhorse. It crosses two joints, the knee and the ankle; it originates at the posterior surfaces of the condyles of the femur and inserts at the calcaneus via the calcaneal tendon. Its actions are to flex the knee and plantar flex the ankle.
We use it every time we take a step – that’s about 10,000 times a day – and yet we give it no love. Add to those 10,000 steps all the pedal work in driving and all of the reaching on tiptoe to the back of your cupboards, and you get some sense of how much we depend on this muscle.
Let’s consider walking as our primary action as humans. It’s fundamental to expressing who we are, as a species and as individuals. That makes our feet our interface with the world, and it also makes our feet a host for dysfunction and discomfort.
Tightness or shortness in the gastrocnemius, known as gastrocnemius equinus, can lead to flat feet, unstable ankles, bunions, metatarsalgia, capsulitis, curled fifth toes, hammertoes, sesamoiditis, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendon inflammation, tendinitis, and even Achilles tendon rupture.
According to medical study, little attention has been paid to the occurrence of gastrocnemius equinus in otherwise healthy individuals. Aside from presenting as the disorders listed above, gastrocnemius equinus may be most notable as a restriction in passive ankle dorsiflexion.
Gastrocnemius equinus is often treated with a night splint, which is like a stiff, open faced boot that forces the ankle into a dorsiflexed position. According to one source, “in truth, however, the main advantage to a night splint for a tight Achilles tendon is the ability to say we tried something conservative before recommending or suggesting a surgery.”
The short form is that if you have discomfort in your feet, you should spend some time with your gastrocs and an Alpha Therapy Ball!
I use an Alpha ball to release adhesion in my gastrocs by sitting on the floor with my legs extended in front of me and resting my right leg on the Alpha ball at the gastroc. Then I cross my left leg over my right, and lift my butt off the floor by pressing down into my hands. Find a tight spot, and take your right foot into plantar flexion to PNF the stretch. Don’t ignore the calcaneal tendon, inferior to the teardrop heads of the gastroc, which is also usually a total mess.
Dr. Kelly Starrett has an effective method of restoring the gastocnemius and calcaneal tendon called the Bone Saw. Check out the video here: http://www.mobilitywod.com/2012/04/introducing-the-bone-saw-calf-smash-redux/