Updated: Feb 17
Foam rolling can be great to loosen off your calves when they’re tight from training. But there are times when foam rolling can actually make your calf pain worse. Other times, you may find that it doesn't really have a lasting effect. In this article, I'll explain why this may be and I've also included a video where I demonstrate my favourite calf rolling technique. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.
In this article:
I also discuss all of the dos and don'ts of foam rolling in this video and demonstrate my favourite method.
When to foam roll your calves
There is some evidence to suggest that you can “wake muscles up” through foam rolling and that it may improve performance, but the research is not quite clear on it yet. It may also help to improve your flexibility. The most important thing is that none of the studies have reported any negative effects from foam rolling under these circumstances, so it is perfectly safe to do as part of your warm-up. I’ve previously discussed the benefits of foam rolling here.
It may be useful to foam roll your calves after training, as it has been shown to improve flexibility, and there is some evidence to suggest that it can reduce the amount of soreness that you feel after exercise.
When NOT to foam roll your calves
Do not use a foam roller on your calves if you suspect that you may have torn or strained it – especially if you have bruising or swelling. If you felt your calf muscle pop or you felt a sudden sharp pain while running, then you've likely torn it.
The muscle fibres need time to recover, and you can worsen your injury if you do strong massage on a recently strained calf. Foam rolling does not make injuries heal faster. Muscle strains require a combination of rest and strengthening exercises to heal. You can read more about the treatment of calf muscles strains in this article.
If your calf pain started for no apparent reason, and it just suddenly became painful, red, and swollen, you should not foam roll or massage it. Rather consult your doctor immediately or go to the accident and emergency room, because you may actually have a blood clot, and it has to be treated immediately.
When foam rolling your calves will not work
If you’ve worked your calves very hard and haven’t given them enough time to recover between training sessions, they may remain tight and sore even after using a foam roller. In this case, you need to give them relative rest through reducing your running intensity and/or volume and rather doing low impact activities, e.g. gentle cycling or swimming.
Your sciatic nerve originates in your back, passes through your gluteal muscles, and runs down the back of your leg. If your lower back or gluteal muscles are tight, they will prevent your sciatic nerve from sliding freely when you use your legs to run, walk, cycle, etc. I often find this to be the case in patients who complain of chronically tight calves.
Including mobility exercises for your lower back and hips in your routine can make a massive difference if your calf tightness is due to neural tension. A physiotherapist can help you with this, and it is something that our team can diagnose and treat via an online physio consultation via video call.
How to foam roll your calves
There is currently no gold standard for foam rolling calves, but the methods most frequently used in the research are:
Broad or longitudinal strokes along the length of the calf muscle (ankle to knee). They usually spend about two minutes per leg.
Point pressure or sustained pressure. This is where they sustain the pressure for between 30 and 60 seconds on a painful spot (until the sensitivity decreases) and then move on to the next. Using a massage ball for this usually works a better than a foam roller.
I demonstrate my favourite technique in the video at the start of this article.
Type of roller
A firm roller is better than a soft one; it should have a bit of give in it but not dent in excessively when you press on it. If you get one with knobbles on it, it may be better for applying point pressure.
For massage balls, I prefer the smooth lacrosse ball type made of rubber, as they don't slip around on your exercise mat. A massage stick can also be useful if you don't want to be rolling around on the floor, and it allows you to control the amount of pressure better.
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Amount of pressure
The pressure you apply should be 'comfortably uncomfortable'. One of the reasons why foam rolling helps to relax your calf muscles, is that it desensitizes the nervous system, which in turn reduces the muscle tone. If you are too aggressive and cause too much pain, the opposite happens - the nerve endings become more sensitive and the muscles increase their tone.
How we can help
Need more help with an injury or perhaps just advice on injury prevention? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.