We're going to let you in on a secret: Cankles, the phenomenon of a calf muscle and ankle looking like the same entity, aren't only a problem for people who've experienced weight gain and water retention. Even people who exercise and keep their weight in check can have the muscle imbalances that cause calf and ankle to become one.
Your calves are primarily made up of two muscles, the soleus and the gastrocnemius. Your gastroc is the upper muscle that really pops out and gives your calves a defined look and, ideally, engages most when you perform explosive activities like running and jumping. However, restrictions in your feet and soleus can prevent the muscle from turning on when it should.
Tightness in your plantar fascia, the ligament that connects your heel to your toes, creates a lack of mobility in your feet, preventing the movement needed to activate the gastroc. Additionally, tight plantar fascia pulls on your soleus — the lower part of the calf-muscle family — causing it to remain in a constant state of contraction. Since your gastroc can only activate when your soleus and plantar fascia lengthen properly, your gastroc’s ability to turn on is limited. Over time, a lack of activation can cause your gastrocs to become underdeveloped. Without a defined gastroc muscle, your calf blends seamlessly down through your ankle to your foot — and voilá, a cankle is born.
To get back your gastrocs, you need to make sure they are turned on and working properly — which can only happen when you've loosened up that plantar fascia ligament and your soleus. Once you've addressed those, you can retrain your calf muscles to work properly with activation exercises. Here are some exercises that should do the trick — and keep cankles at bay.
Plantar Fascia Release
- Standing with a lacrosse ball or golf ball: Place the ball on the bottom of your foot.
- With weight placed through your leg, gently roll the ball under your foot.
- Once you find a spot that is tender, stop and point your toes up and down.
- Roll on the ball for one to two minutes.
Calf Release (Focus on Soleus)
- Sit with your calf on top of the lacrosse ball.
- Place your other leg over the one you are releasing and roll yourself up and down over the ball.
- Once you find a spot that is tender, stop and point your foot up and down for 30 seconds.
- If this is too challenging, you may stand on both legs together.
Nose to Wall
- Stand on one leg and place the other leg down behind you like a kickstand. No weight should be placed through your back leg.
- Keep the front leg as straight as you can without locking it.
- With your body straight, shift your weight from your heel to the ball of your foot. Repeat.
Golf Ball Pick-Up
- Stand on one leg, while dropping the other leg down on to the toes like a kickstand. Maintain a slightly bent knee throughout the exercise.
- Keep your back flat. It is important that you not arch or round your back. Hinge from the hips, bringing your torso toward the floor. As you begin to stand back up, push up through your heel.
- Repeat a set of this exercise reaching to the inside of your standing leg and then another set reaching to the outside of your standing leg.
- Stand with chest against a stability ball, rested on a wall, legs straight out behind you until heel isn’t touching the floor.
- Shift your weight all to one leg with the other leg resting on the back of the working leg. Slightly bend your knee.
- Go up on your toes, then come all the way back down until your heel touches the floor.
- Repeat the motion with your working leg straight. Perform the exercise with your foot pointing straight and turned outward.
- If this is too difficult, you can perform with both feet on the ground.