The Achilles tendon connects your two main calf muscles – the gastrocnemius and soleus – to the back of the heel bone. It comes into play in most athletic movements, as well as most day to day movement. Every time you point your toes, flex your foot or push yourself forwards in an explosive movement – for example, sprinting, diving, jumping, or cycling – you will be relying on and putting pressure through your Achilles tendon.
Achilles tendons are notoriously injury prone. Common injuries include tendonitis and rupture and can occur when the tendon isn’t strong or supple enough to cope with the demands it is put through. Years of overuse (or, alternatively, underuse), direct impact injuries and certain medications can contribute to Achilles tendon weakness and tightness.
Maintaining supple, flexible Achilles tendons will go a long way to warding off injury and improving athletic performance. It will also halt the development of flat-footed gaits that can harm the ankles, knees and hips over time.
Stretching Out Your Achilles Tendons
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some simple, common ways of stretching out the Achilles tendons. You can do these as often as you like – daily, if it helps and you are able – and will find your foot motor patterns and calf function improving over time as your Achilles tendons begin to grow supple.
There are a few rules to bear in mind when stretching any muscle or tendon. As they are pretty tight – and if you’re reading this, yours are probably particularly tight! – you really need to pay attention to them when working on your Achilles tendons.
- Firstly, don’t bounce. This will likely lead to microtears and unwanted trauma. Take steady movements and hold each stretch statically at its fullest range of motion.
- Move slowly, both in each stretch and over time. Allow your tendons to stretch, then release, take a deep breath, and stretch a little more. Improve by millimetres each time, not forcing anything further or faster than it should go.
- With these in mind, stop if you feel any sharp pain. A dull pulling sensation is fine. Sharpness is not. This is a sure sign that you are pushing the tendon too far and need to dial it back a bit.
Keep these in mind and you should have supple, pain-free Achilles tendons in no time by simply trying out some of these stretches.
How to Stretch Your Achilles Tendon While Standing
Toe raises should be your first port-of-call if you’re looking to stretch out your Achilles tendons and calf muscles. They are also pretty good at building strength and mass around your calves, which will go a long way to reducing the risk of injury in its own right.
To perform a toe raise:
- I would use a stair or step, though any similar surface will do. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of the step, with your heels out over the edge.
- Hold the wall or the back of a chair for support if you need a little help balancing.
- Allow your heels to dip down to their fullest range of motion, until you feel a stretch. Hold for a couple of breaths.
- Then come back up and raise up onto the balls of your feet, nearly on your tiptoes. Hold for a couple of breaths.
You can perform the toe stretch on one leg at a time as an alternative. This will represent greater stimulation through your calves and will allow you to work both sides properly if one side is tighter than the other (quite common after injuries).
Standing Achilles stretch
The ‘lean and lunge’ standing Achilles tendon stretch is something of a classic. It warms and stretches both the tendon itself and the soleus muscles, giving you length and suppleness through pretty much the full lower legs.
To perform a standing Achilles stretch:
- Stand in front of a wall, a couple of feet from it. Toes should be pointed forwards throughout.
- Leaning forwards, place both your flat palms on the wall about shoulder width apart.
- Extend one foot back as far as you can whilst still keeping the heel on the floor. Use the other foot to stabilise.
- If this is enough, great. If you can stretch a little further then lean forwards, bend your knee slightly and press down on the heel. Sink your hips down slightly, going as far as is comfortable.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, sinking slightly deeper with each exhalation as your muscles and tendons relax, then switch sides.
To further isolate the Achilles tendon, aim for a deeper bend to the knee. Straightening the leg, on the other hand, will place the stretch more firmly in the calf.
How to Stretch Your Achilles Tendon While Sitting
Seated towel stretch
- The seated towel stretch puts a little pressure into your toes, causing them to dorsiflex the foot, thus stretching out the Achilles tendons and calf muscles in a similar way to the bottom portion of a toe raise.
- To perform the seated towel stretch:
- Sit on the floor. Extend your legs forwards and keep your back neutral.
- Loop a towel, strap or band around the balls of your foot, holding an end of the towel in each hand.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds and release.
- To increase the stretch through your hamstrings, lean into the movement, pulling yourself down.
If you struggle to sit on the floor with straight legs – as many people with short or tight hamstrings will do – place a cushion or rolled up yoga mat beneath your hips to tilt yourself slightly forwards. Alternatively, press your back against the wall to support yourself and consider keeping your knees slightly bent.
Try performing these individually from time to time, one foot at a time, especially if one Achilles tendon is tighter than the other.
People with short hamstrings, men especially, often find it difficult to sit on the floor without falling back. If this is you, you can either sit on a cushion to elevate your hips or press your back against the wall to support yourself. If one calf is tighter than the other, you can wrap a towel around each foot individually rather than both.
Also known as a ‘sitting egg stretch’, the heel sit can be pretty tough. It’s a more advanced move, incorporating a squat position. It makes use of your bodyweight, pushing downwards into the Achilles tendons as the calf muscles contract.
Heel sits are also a great strengthening and stabilising movement.
To perform a heel sit:
- Stand with your feet just outside hip width. Point your toes slightly outwards.
- Come up onto the balls of your feet. From here, squat downwards, pushing your knees outwards and forwards as your hips come back. Your heels should be off the ground throughout.
- You are aiming to bring your bottom down to touch your heels.
- Place your hands on the ground in front of you, elbows between your knees.
- Lean into your arms, pressing your elbows into your inner thighs. This will give you support whilst also providing a nice, extra stretch through the hips.
- From here, gently and slowly bring your heels down towards the ground until you feel a light stretch.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Perform these stretches regularly – especially after hard training like running or jumping – and you will benefit hugely. Your Achilles tendons and calves will be far safer and less injury prone, and will move more smoothly, with greater power output and stability.