Calf tightness and pain can be annoying and even debilitating for someone who loves activities or sports that require being on their feet. Many people assume calf tightness and pain to be emanating from their gastrocnemius, soleus and/or Achilles tendon, the known predominant features in the calf. This could be true but be forewarned, what lies beneath the main features can also be a major culprit, if not the guilty party. Say hello to the flexor hallucis longus (FHL). It is the largest and strongest deep muscle of the leg’s posterior section. The FHL originates just below the middle of the fibula (middle of the lower back leg), running down the leg across the side of the ankle, then along the plantar side of the foot inserting into the tip of the large toe (the distal phalanx). The FHL allows for flexion in the big toe, in addition to plantar flexion and inversion of the ankle joint. Anytime the toe is inhibited, injured, deformed, misaligned, or tight a person’s gait is compromised and thus the FHL is affected leading to calf tension. Many people’s FHL muscles are constricted without even knowing it, directly caused by their toe.
Questions to ponder whether your FHL has been compromised: Have you been wearing high heels, small shoes, or narrow width shoes? Do you have a bunion, hammer toe, arthritis, injury or bruise in your big toe? If so, you can potentially have a misalignment in your foot which will affect your calf and Flexor Hallucis Longus pain. This troubling symptom can lead to problems in the upper leg, pelvis and the lower back. Golden rule: if you cannot spread your toes out a little in your everyday shoes, they are too small. A little advice to all the high heeled lovers out there, wear them less… if at all. They are one of the silent killers of your body.
Simply put: Be good to your toes. Love them and play with them! There are various yoga tune-up exercises you can perform: Baddhakonasana with interlaced toes; Dandasana with ankles circles emphasizing opening the toes; Dandasana with eversion and inversion; Barbie doll feet; and Big toe/ little toe isolations. Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls can also do wonders on your feet and toes (try the YTU Quickfix DVD for Ankles/Feet). Lastly, while sleeping, why not put on toe separators. The whole idea around Yoga Tune Up® is learning how to proprioceptively map out your body, finding all the blind spots, lengthening and strengthening them; hence, gaining a balanced body. So, the next time you have calf pain, think about toeing in on it!
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Couldn’t agree with this more! People often focus too narrowly on their pain or discomfort, causing them to not see that the cause of the pain could be from somewhere else. The feet have a great impact on all areas of the body and are connected to other parts of the body in ways people sometimes do not expect. A diagnosis of metatarsalgia https://www.premiermedicalhv.com/divisions/services/metatarsalgia/ could help explain pain in the ankle, legs, or even the back as an example.
It blows my mind to think the big toe can have such a huge impact on the rest of your body. From calf to glute, I never would have thought to evaluate that limb. I need to find out what happens when you have a Brocken big toe, I’ve had one for years but never considered it was a culprit in any discomfort. Great post!
Really enjoyed this article! So interesting to think that what is happening in your big toe could affect your gate, your lower back, any number of things. I especially liked the idea of toe spacers while you sleep. Thanks!
I recently have been dealing with my left calf of which I have focused solely on calf rolling/stretching and overlooking the toes. I didn’t think to connect the dots with my gait and toes flexibility as a contributor towards my issues with my calf. I am so good at focusing on all other areas of my body to stretch, release yet completely ignore my toes! I am starting to integrate the stretches you suggested and the more I dissect how the body is feeling, I am noticing that some of my back issues as well could all be started/triggered by my toes ! As for high heels, I have never been one to wear them and now reading your article, I have more proof in the pudding that I don’t need to wear them. 🙂
Great! I didn’t realise how important is the link between the toes (and wearing heel) and the rest of the body. Just by stop wearing heel, a few months ago, I get less tension in the lunbars. But I will work more on my toes to get even more bénéfits! Thanks
Great article. It’s so important to realise how much foot issues move up the chain and affect the rest of the body. They are the foundation for everything! Thanks for the reminder to also pay more attention to the FHL in cases of calf tightness. All of the YTU exercises listed are so helpful for foot health.
Such an overlooked muscle! I will make sure to add FHL stretching with my clients to make sure they have happy feet and happier bodies! thanks for posting!
It’s great to see an article that emphasizes the health of the feet! I make a point to wear toe-separators for about 1 hour each day while I read or do computer work. I also have a daily habit of rolling out my feet with therapy balls.each day. And finally, my boyfriend and I give each other foot massages in the evening as we’re winding down because it’s bonding time for us and feels amazing!
Some great exercises in your article that I am going to do with my class, I have two ladies with chronic calf pain and shoes are not the problem.
I think we have a tendency to forget about the full kinetic chain and how one thing going on can throw the whole body off. And the toes. We don’t think about them. We walk on them for miles, squeeze them in shoes they shouldn’t be in and then complain when our back or shoulders are bothering us. It always reminds me of a Feldenkrais class I went to once where they really stressed on small movement in one part of the body, as simple as pressing your right index infer in the earth and paying attention to the left pinky toe. It’s some of these small muscles that are overtaxed or underused that could be creating havoc. We need to pay attention to the details.
Nice article bringing our focus on of the kinetic chain back to our roots – feet. Furthest limb from our brains & often ignored until they cause us a problem. Baddhakonasana with interlaced toes is a fantastic way to bring us back to our feet – most people with experience deep discomfort in this pose, but with practice it can really open up the toes & bring the proprioception back into this neglected area – more power to our grass roots.
Great insight on the calf muscle pain. Toes, I think balance our entire body, the muscularskeletor system, very heavy,,, I love the intertwine YTU movement to warm up the toes, while paying attention to the calf muscles. A friend also mentioned her PT suggested wearing flip flops ad fuel to the fire, the toes are not stable in them.
Thank you for this article! I used to be a dancer and had no problems point my feet/toes but somewhere in the last three years I started noticing my big toes were not really flexing and it really concerned me because whenever I would drop into a dance class my toes were not functioning as they used to. In the last year I’ve noticed my calved being uber tight, it is really hard to try and keep my back heel down in warrior 1. Anyway, this article has totally helped me in my journey to figure out what’s going on down there. Thanks!
You’re right about heels being a silent killer. I performed in heels on a moving ship for years and my body was ruined. I just couldn’t do it to my body anymore. I also suffer from a hammer toe from dancing in what I guess was improper position for as long as I can remember. All those years has really come back to bite me, I’m now bringing more focus to my toes and swear by toe spacers! I love this exercise and how much focus it takes for a seemingly simple task! Thanks for the info!
I have tight calf muscles and have found relief rolling my feet out on the YTU Therapy Balls. It feels especially good to isolate the action of the first toe. I am fascinated that I can articulate the right flexor hallucis longus/brevis fairly well but feel so “stuck” on the left side., it makes me crazy. I spent years squishing my feet into figure skates then followed with years in orthotics and jacked up runners. I like the idea of wearing toe spreaders while I sleep! Thank-you for the suggestion.
Great post, Kristin! I’m blessed to have open, happy toes thanks to a regular yoga practice. It’s definitely important to take care of those guys. One other pose I’d love to add to your suggested poses for the toes is sitting seza with a strap. This Yoga Tune Up pose forces your toes into deep flexion, putting the FHL to work. It also regenerates neural activity and circulation in the toes.
The feet are the furthest away and get little attention. Having broken my little toe I know the importance of every working part in the foot. No standing equals no walking equals no living. I notice I walk /stand differently since Ive been an obsessive foot roller with my YTU balls. I start my morning brushing my teeth as I roll away.
This has been one of my favorite discoveries this week during training. I can see how it’s going to relieve a lot of pressure off my right big toe as I tend to depress it a lot to help lift the arch of my right foot while walking or standing. It feels so good and makes me want to giggle. I can’t wait to show my kids this.
Although we haven’t yet covered this area in the teacher training, I immediately looked for the section on feet in the manual just to see what else there is to be doing for the feet/ankle/toes. This article is a nice summary of that and is actually the second time I am reading it…I started sleeping with toe separators after the first time I read (several months ago)and my feel are much better for it – bunionettes are visibly smaller, less metatarsal pain when I xc ski. Thank you and keep up the great work!
Thank you for the reminder and talking about the toes and toe separators. I am not a big fan of high heels. Due to ankle issues I have been a fan of rolling tennis balls under the feet for a few years which has helped. Since discovering YTU Therapy Balls last month, I am now addicted. Today, I however in YTU Teacher Training, we worked in Baddhakonasana with interlaced toes; Dandasana with ankles circles; Dandasana with eversion and inversion; Barbie doll feet; and Big toe/ little toe isolation. I was greatly humbled by my goofy coordination (or lack thereof) and surprised at the absolute disconnect in my body. When I get done with training this week, I am immediately going to buy toe spacers to improve the proprioception in my feet and keep working with the balls too.
In awareness of the “little things in life” or of our body, and HOW important and foundational they are to our TOTAL well being and how overlooked they are by in the “mainstream” of life. I will from this day forth add the adjective important in before “big” when talking about that Important Big TOE!
Thanks! This is a great reminder, people always hyper focused on the calves, Specially runners. Of course. They need to consider there feet and big toe. I had not considered the Hallucis to be bigger than the Gastrocs and the Soleus.
Kristin! I have to confess that I love to wear high heels and I have bonion 🙁 It means I have misalignment in my feet. The poses you mentioned are very useful, and I love the idea of using toe separators. Easy and convinient. Thanks!
Yay Kristin! Thanks for the info and expanding out minds. In the last 3 1/2 years after reading Born to Run while doing a yoga TT in Mexico for 3 weeks, I have been on a mission to attend to my feet and ankles. This is such awesome info. Sleeping with my toe separators, yes! Also, I have a client who is looking to drop his 40 yard dash time and I know this will help. Thanks again!
First of all….I love the name of this article! It totally hooked me! I’ve been working on the day 4 context grids today and so have been really focused on the feets! Interestingly enough, a student approached me today and told me her doctor wanted to perform surgery on her foot and she asked if there was anything she could do that might help her avoid surgery. How happy was I to have the YTU toe & foot exercises to share with her?! Anyway, back to your article here….I had no idea that the FHL could be the culprit of tightness and pain in the gastroc and soleus. I love all this new knowledge I’m gaining through the YTU training. It’s so inspiring and exciting to have new tools to share with my students and help them to heal.
I agree with Dawn. Totally great focus for this article. I have had a chicken and egg conversation with my leg about whether the pain in my calf was coming from my foot or the pain in my toes has been coming from my calf. Argument has been enlightened –thank you. Have not used the therapy balls on my feet- YET! But, you can guarantee i am going to begin exploring. And, how exciting to find another use for those toe separators, other than keeping the polish neat and tidy while drying pedicure. Those would work, right? Seems like they are super affordable and most of us have them at home. Balls and separators: project for bedtime. thanks kristin!
Fantastic little gem of a blog!! I work on runners’ feet a lot in my sports medicine/orthopedic center. It never ceases to amaze me how the population who demand the most of their feet pay the least attention to them in general! Plantar fasciitis, metatarsalgia, sesamoiditis, morton’s neuroma, stress fractures, bunions, posterior tibialis tendinitis, etc. YTU therapy balls are my first line of defense when tackling these nasty foes. They are a great adjunct to hands on manual work – self care is the best health care!!
Nice job addressing a small part of the kinetic chain that has drastic affects on the rest of the body.
I love the YTU exercises for the feet since they isolate muscle and range of motion in this area which we tend to neglect. I had a bunion forming on my foot so I began to practice fanning the toes, big toe/little toe flexion, plantar/dorsi flexion, stretching the top of my feet and after a few months the bunion started receding. Six month later it’s gone! Hard to believe that many people opt for corrective surgery when all they need are foot exercises.
Having broken most of my toes (not all at the same time), I can attest to the importance of functioning toes to the simple acts of standing and walking let alone many of the poses performed in a yoga practice. Since the FHL is partially responsible for plantarflexion, how much impact do you think it has on the health and well-being of the Achilles Tendon?
Your article definitely struck a chord with me. I have run several marathons, and continue to train for future events, but often have debilitating calf spasm and pain. Never did I relate that back to the bunion surgery I had several years back. I will definitely be saying hello to the flexor hallucis longus (FHL) to see if that is an area which deserves some extra tlc and focus.
Great reminder that things aren’t always as they seem. With all of the abuse we put our feet through we need to spend more time focusing on them, I love rolling my feet out with my YTU balls!!
Wow! Lots of research are necessary when someone gets injured. What part of the body are intimately linked, and how they affect each other. And it’s a new process that unfolds in a different way for everybody as we are all very unique.
the feet are one of the areas we neglect the most. we pound the pavement, stuff our toes into shoes that are either too small or not designed for our foot shape, and we run jump and propel all of our weight on these feet weekend warriorstyle. no wonder we have pain that may work its way up the kinectic chain. in order to heal, we must look at the root cause of the pain, not just where it hurts
Rolling out the feet is every single one of my ‘top sellers’ in private sessions. They LOVE it. Some wear heels, some just trapse around NYC every day – and this offers more relief from the feet all the way up the back than they ever dreamed with such a simple tool. I especially love the moment when they ‘reclaim’ their big toe, and learn to move it separately from the rest of their foot. 70 year olds giggle like 5 year olds when it happens 🙂
Like what Emma said, we don’t always know exactly what is causing a client’s (or our own) pain, and this is precisely why we work so much with the whole body. We can stretch our calves to fix our feet, and then we can stretch our hamstrings to help stretch the calves, and then we realize that if we started with all kinds of stretches in the hips, well, it goes on and on. And there’s more than one stretch for each area. So the sky’s the limit! I wish there was a blinking light in the part of the body that is out of balance, so we’d know where exactly to fix. Of course, the reality is, we’d all glow with numerous blinking lights and they’d all deserve attention.
Thanks for bringing awareness to such an important part of our body that often gets ignored. As bipeds we need to take care of our lower extremities and bringing awareness to our FHL especially through use of the balls right in the area of the FHL. I was suffering from sesamoiditis for a long time and the FHL was impacted and all the way up to the pelvis, lower back etc.. Amazing how one imbalance in our body scaffolds all the way up. I find webbing the toes and creating space with in the toes and using the balls to help create space, brings proprioceptive awareness and trains my brain to recognize the neural pathways that help turn on these other muscles that are sleeping while the bigger muscles take over. Thanks for this article! P.S. my high heels in my closet have dust all over them after my foot issues and agree they are a huge health hazard.
Kristin this is a great article! When clients are experiencing pain in the body it is not always directly correlated with the most expecated places. Imbalances in the body can cause pain in places that are least expected. In order to exaclty figure out where these imbalances are derived from require more information from each individual client but not always possible in a group setting. Some other thoughts on tight calves if the FHL is not the cause are tight hamstrings, weak low back and/or core and range of motion in the ankle joint. These are just some othe ideas for those who are having tight calves but cannot define the root cause. Give it a try!
Thanks for the great article on the oft-ignored Flexor hallucis longus! In my Roffing practice I admit that I’m more often targeting the obvious trouble makers like the gastrocnemius and soleus, but this has given me some important food for thought! Thank you!
I just finished my first yoga tune up session with Owen today and this article really got me thinking about how the ENTIRE body is involved in our yoga practices. Until recently, my asana practice was mostly focused on the larger limbs (legs, arms, head, trunk). However, after reading this article, I am starting to see the interconnected nature of the body (both large and small parts) and how “pain” or “problems” with areas of the body cannot be addressed in isolation. Rather, they are often connected with other parts that we may not even think about.
Kristin, great article! Years ago I was told by a guy at a running shoe store that my right toe lifted and didn’t press down during my stride and that it would cause problems down the line if I didn’t develop that strength. I didn’t pay much attention back then when I ran, but I certainly did once I started practicing yoga. It’s tied into little imbalances in my right knee and hip. When I root it like my left side, I feel it in my outer hip and external rotators. The shoes we wear are so important! While I love high heels I rarely wear them because I can barely walk in them anymore. I feel the effects. And shoes like Uggs and flip-flops are not great either…written by someone who still wears them… Exercising and stretching our toes and feet are incredibly important! Our whole being is supported by them.