After years of doing mostly low-impact cardio in a gym setting, I recently gave up my gym membership and started jogging outdoors. Although I love the invigorating feeling of the wind on my face and the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement, what I don’t love about running is the tightness that builds up in my shins and calves.
While it’s relatively easy to stretch the larger muscles in our legs, the hamstrings and quads, it’s a bit more difficult to target the lower leg muscles. This short yoga sequence will help you release pent-up tension in your shins and calves from running or walking, day in and day out. Try these exercises both before and after you go for a run or walk to keep your lower legs healthy and supple.
1. Self-Myofascial Release for the Calves
It sounds intimidating, but self-myofascial release is just a fancy term for a simple technique that loosens up the pesky knots in our muscles and fascia (or connective tissue). It’s an effective way to release tight muscle fibers that are chronically contracted from overuse, making them resistant to stretching.
You may be familiar with using a foam roller for myofascial release, but my favorite way to work on the calves is with a rolled-up yoga mat. When you use this technique before doing the more traditional stretches below, you’ll dissolve some of the restrictions in your calf muscles, allowing you to stretch them more effectively.
Fold a sticky mat in half, then roll it up as tightly as possible, starting from the creased end.
Kneel with your hips stacked above your knees. Place the rolled-up mat at the backs of your knees, then slowly and carefully sit back onto your heels, wedging the mat between your hamstrings and calves.
Now for the most important part: Breathe! As you inhale, feel the crown of your head reaching up and your tailbone drawing down. Exhale slowly and smoothly, allowing the pressure of the mat to gently sink into your calves.
Continue focusing on your in and out breath for 5 breath cycles. The pressure can be intense; if at any point you feel pain that restricts your breath, come out of the pose.
2. Toe Taps and Self-Massage for the Shins
If you have super-tight shins, you’ve probably noticed that it’s difficult to relieve the tension with stretching alone. While getting a massage can help immensely, you don’t have to rely on someone else to get relief – a little self-massage with focused breathing and mind-body awareness can go a long way.
Place your right foot flat on the floor. Set a timer for 30 seconds and tap your toes up and down repeatedly, as many times as you can until the timer goes off. This fires up the muscles in your shin, making them more pliable before you massage them.
Starting midway down your shin, use your thumbs to massage firmly along the length of your tibialis anterior – the long, thin muscle that runs along the outside of your shin bone – one thumb moving up and the other moving down. Take slow, steady breaths as you massage, focusing your attention on the sense of release.
Repeat the toe taps and massage on your left leg.
3. Half Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana)
This pose provides a great stretch for your hamstrings and calves when the foot is flexed (above). When the toes are pointed (below), it also lengthens the muscles in your shin and can help relieve pain from shin splints.
Kneel with your hips over your knees. Extend your right leg straight out in front of you, with the foot flexed and heel on the ground. Place your hands on your hips or hold onto a wall or chair for balance.
Either stay here with your spine upright or if you’d like to go deeper, fold your torso over your right leg and place your fingertips on the ground. Keep the pelvis square and the back of the neck long. Take 5 deep breaths.
Next, point your toes down toward the mat. Stay here for another 5 breath cycles.
Now coordinate the movement with your breath: Take a deep inhale as you flex your foot up, and slowly exhale as you point your toes down. Repeat with the left leg extended.
4. One-Legged Downward-Facing Dog (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward Dog in and of itself encourages the whole back side of the legs to lengthen; but this variation with one leg lifted allows you to sink a bit deeper into the calf stretch, one leg at a time.
Come into Down Dog: Starting on all fours, spread your fingers wide. Root both hands down as you push the ground away from you and draw your hips up and back, away from your shoulders.
Inhale and lift your right leg straight up, toes pointing down (it doesn’t have to be very high).
Keep breathing, and allow your left heel to lower toward the ground (it may or may not actually reach).
Circle your right foot clockwise, then counterclockwise to loosen up the ankle and shin. Lower the right leg and repeat with the left.
5. Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
The final pose in this sequence, Pyramid Pose both stretches and strengthens the legs simultaneously. I love using a yoga block to “raise the floor,” providing extra support and a light, buoyant feel to the pose.
Have a block handy if you plan to use one.
From Downward Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands. Bend your right knee, bring your hands to your hips, and lift your torso to come to standing.
If you’re using a block, place it on the inside of your right foot. Separate your feet a bit, train-track style, to help maintain your balance. Straighten both legs and keep your pelvis square.
Fold forward from the hips and place your hands on the block, your shin, or the ground. Take 5 deep breaths, keeping the spine and back of the neck long.
Place your hands on the ground and push back into Down Dog. Step your left foot forward and repeat Pyramid on the left side.
With a little self-care and a few go-to yoga poses, you’ll have a strong and flexible foundation for all the running and walking your heart desires!
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Related: 5 Post-Run Stretches
Yoga Stretches for Neck and Shoulders
Photo: Annika Ihnat