What it the Gastrocnemius?
The gastrocnemius is a muscle that is part of the tricep-surae, the tendon of which, and along with the solus, comprises the Achilles Tendon. The gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon unit is unique in that it crosses two joints; the knee and the ankle.
What does it do?
The action of the gastrocnemius/soleus/Achilles (tricep-surae) complex is to flex the ankle, which is important for simple activities like picking your heel up as you walk, propelling forward during running, and strong push off while jumping. Any yet it needs to be flexible enough and be able to stretch so that you can transition to your forefoot without early heel ‘lift-off’, and an early shift to the forefoot, during the normal gait cycle.
What is the problem?
The notable Dr. Sigvard Hansen increased awareness that tightness in the gastrocnemius, which he states was “the most common yet frequently unrecognized problem disrupting the normal biomechanics of the foot”. And having been in practice for a few years, I have found this statement to be true. A tight gastrocnemius can not only cause chronic heel pain and mimic or worsen plantar fasciitis, but by limiting ankle extension, it can alter the mechanical forces in the midfoot and forefoot during gait and cause myriad problems in the forefoot, metatarsal pain, the ball of the foot, and even break down the joints in the arch and at the transverse tarsal joints.
Stretching. If one had to pick one muscle to stretch in the body, this would rank at the top. I try to avoid surgical lengthening, by recommending dedicated stretching of the gastrocnemius. Many patients require the assistance of a physical therapist, because there are other mechanical issues that need to be addressed. But I also recommend stretching at home. If the gastrocnemius is not amenable to stretching then surgical treatment may be needed.
How to stretch?
Do not hurt yourself. If you are having difficulty you need to have your technique assessed by a therapist or your orthopedic surgeon. My patients have had success with a twice daily stretching technique.
The video below shows my clinical assessment of Gastrocnemius tightness