Author: Chloe Wilson - BSc(Hons) Physiotherapy
Heel stretch exercises can be a really effective way of reducing foot pain and tightness. By stretching out the muscles around the foot, you reduce the tension and friction on the foot structures.
Here we will look at some of the best heel stretch exercises, simple to perform yet really effective at stretching out the muscles and reducing pain.
We have split them into two groups, those that target the calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, and those that target the plantar fascia, a band of soft tissues running along the sole of your foot connecting the heel and the toes.
It can also help to stretch out the other muscles of the foot and toes, so do have a look at the ankle and toe stretches section too. All these exercises should ideally be done twice a day and always before and after exercise.
The calf is made up of two muscles. The larger muscle, gastrocnemius, arises from just above the knee and the smaller muscle, soleus arises just below the knee. They both run down the back of the calf before joining together to form the Achilles tendon which attaches to the back of the heel. You can either do a general calf stretch which targets both muscles, or work each muscle separately if you want to be more specific.
Purpose: Targets both calf muscles
Starting Position: Stand with your heel hanging off the back of a step
Action: Bend you standing leg slightly to let your heel drop down until you feel a stretch in the calf
Repetitions: Hold for 30 secs and repeat 3 times, gradually trying to drop the heel further to increase
Variations: To target gastrocnemius keep the knee straight, to target soleus, as the heel drop, bend the knee on the same side slightly
Purpose: A simple, effective gastrocnemius stretch
Starting Position: Standing facing a wall with the leg to be stretched behind, toes pointing forwards
Action: Keeping the back heel down and knee straight, lunge forwards onto the front leg until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg
Repetitions: Hold this gastrocnemius stretch for 30 secs and repeat 3 times
Purpose: Heel stretch for the Soleus calf muscle
Starting Position: Stand facing a wall with the leg to be stretched stepped behind, toes pointing forwards, both knees bent
Action: Gently lean into the wall until a pull is felt down the calf of the back leg
Repetitions: hold this soleus stretch for 30 secs and repeat 3 times
Note: Soleus stretches often don’t feel as strong as a gastrocnemius stretch
The plantar fascia is a thick band of tissue which runs along the sole of your foot, connecting the heel bone to the toes. It supports the arches of the foot and is really important for transferring forces through the foot. Irritation of the plantar fascia, known as plantar fasciitis is the most common cause of heel pain, affecting 1 in 10 individuals, so plantar fascia stretches are really important for almost anyone with heel pain.
Purpose: A great heel stretch for relieving plantar fascia tightness under the foot
Starting Position: Sit with one leg crossed over the other
Action: Grasp all of the toes and pull them as a unit back towards your shin, until you feel a pull in the sole of your foot
Repetitions: Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times
Purpose: Stretching the soft tissues underneath the heel and ball of the foot. Great to do while watching TV!
Starting Position: Sit with your foot resting on a golf ball or tennis ball
Action: Push down into the ball and roll your foot backwards and forwards
Repetitions: 5-10 minutes, 1-2 times daily
Variations: Use a frozen bottle of water or cold drinks can instead of a ball to get the added benefit of cold therapy as you do this heel stretch
These are just a few examples of heel stretch exercises for the ankle. You can find even more exercises in the Calf Stretches and Plantar Fascia Stretches sections. These exercises tend to work best when combined with strengthening exercises so do visit the foot strengthening section as well.
There are also things you can use to help such as the Yoga Toe which can be a really effective way to stretch without having to exercise.