What they do: Dominated by the calf, which runs along the back of your leg, the muscles of your lower leg lift your heels and point your toes. They also stabilize your leg’s connection to your foot, so that your leg moves as one strong limb, not a mess of bended joints and muscles. “For your best performance, your calves have to be strong and flexible so you can change direction and push off without the knee or ankle absorbing the impact,” says Briana Boehmer, director of wellness and fitness services at Salus, Inc. in Delafield, Wis. It’s important to keep your ankles flexible, too. “If they’re not,” Boehmer says, “you’re more prone to twisting them when you land from a jump, change direction quickly or run on an uneven surface.”
Used most commonly when you: Take off and land after a jump shot, point your toes in a freestyle kick, run a cross-country course, sprint during the 100 meters, walk on your tip--toes, press the gas pedal in a car, and otherwise point your toes or raise your heels.
Three moves for stronger, more flexible calves and ankles:
Toe Raises, positions A and B.
How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead and hands on your hips. Keeping your posture straight and your gaze forward, raise your toes off the floor. You can either do this barefoot or in flexible shoes. Hold for a few seconds and lower. As you get stronger, you can either do this off a step — position yourself so your toes would drop down below the step, and you raise them above it — or increase the speed of your raises without sacrificing control. Do 2-3 sets of 15-20 raises.
Calf Raises, positions A and B.
How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead and hands on your hips. Keeping your abs engaged and your gaze forward, raise your heels off the floor. You can either do this barefoot or in flexible shoes. To challenge yourself, you can either hold weights in your hands or drop your heels off a step and raise them. “In addition, rotating your feet inward or outward will challenge your calf and create more functional strength,” Boehmer says. Do 2-3 sets of 15-20 raises.
Circles and Figure Eights
Figure eights, positions A and B.
How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead and hands on your hips. Keeping your abs engaged and your gaze forward, raise your right foot off the floor. Flexing at the ankle, rotate your right foot in a circular motion clockwise 5-10 times then counter clockwise 5-10 times. Lower your right foot if you need a break, then pick it up again and, again flexing at the ankle, draw figure eights in both directions with your toes. Draw 5-10 figure eights in both directions, then switch feet. Do 2-3 sets total. “While this may not seem hard,” Boehmer says, “pay attention to your range of motion. You want to see an improvement in how flexible your ankles are.”
Let’s hear it for the calves: “The greatest benefit of strong calves is the lack of fatigue during races. When my calves aren’t tired, it is much easier to accelerate at those crucial points in the race, and to stay light on my feet for the majority of the race. Flexible ankles are also very beneficial, especially in cross country. During races the terrain is usually very unpredictable, uneven, and at times hilly. Flexible ankles are imperative to prevent a race-inflicted injury.” -- Maddie Timm, senior on the cross country and track team at Brookfield East (Wis.)