A tale of two calves: The story of the distal heart

The tale of two calves is as old as time. Greek history tells of Pheidippedes, the messenger who ran from a town called Marathon to Athens. Pheidippedes had two calves. Before he even contemplated building an ark and collecting animals, even Noah had two calves. In more modern times, Douglas MacArthur once boldly proclaimed, “I shall return.” When he did, it was on the strength of two calves.

One thing these men had in common? At the end of the day, their calves were pretty darn sore.

When people come in for a massage, they often are surprised by how sore their calf muscles are. Athletes constantly stretch their calf muscles by pulling their toes up. More often than not, they do this straight legged. Did you know that this only stretches one of the two muscles that make up the calves?

The Gastrocnemius (gastroc) is the muscle you see. It is the upside down heart shaped one that attaches to the heel. This muscle is used when you flex your ankles; be it run, jump, or stand on your tip toes to reach the coffee grounds in the morning. When you pull your toes back straight legged, you are stretching your gastroc.

The Soleus muscle is the hidden muscle you don’t see. The soleus is a happy little helper to the gastroc when your knee is bent. The main function of the soleus is to help you not fall forward when you are standing up.

In tandem, these two muscles help you run, jump, skip and dance. Teacher Jim used to remind us of another function… the distal heart. The soleus is responsible for pumping venous blood back to the heart. Literally, the calves act as a relay station to keep your blood moving.

Taking care of your calves is important. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about gentle straight leg or bent knee stretches you can do before exercise. Water intake and diet may also affect your general muscle health. There are tools, such as foam rollers, that you can use when you are between massage visits.

When you are in for a massage and we do find a knot, there are several techniques we can incorporate to help. Aggressive deep tissue can be effective, but uncomfortable. Gentle, longer strokes are great if you come in for regular sessions.

Rest assured, there are steps you can take to minimize the calf muscle abnormalities. Don’t let the knots in your legs declare, “I shall return”!

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