Rehab Those Calves
A yoga teacher-colleague and I often engage in some good ol' Q&A. Some good information flows through these conversations and I'm happy to share this with you.
I have a calf question. I've been working on eccentric calf strengthening to treat my calf/achilles pain by doing calf raises off a step — i.e. lift both heels together, and then drop one heel; one set with the leg straight and one set with a deeper bend in the knee. This has been helping a TON and I understand that the calf/achilles has been an issue for me because of all the biking and running and the back of the leg needs strengthening so that added strain isn't put on the achilles through the movement, but am having a hard time articulating exactly what is happening in the calf/achilles during this exercise, and how it helps mitigate calf soreness and (potentially) helps prevent calf/achilles issues?
The exercise you're describing is an interesting one. You are both strengthening and lengthening the calf muscles at the same time. Here is why you may by getting relief from your symptoms:
The calf is dense with connective tissue, and unlike other muscular arrangements, creates nearly closed systems that are profoundly sensitive to the build up a fluid. When we don't actively pump fluid out of these compartments, pressure builds and irritates nerves and blood vessels, and contributes to the degeneration and stiffening of the connective tissue itself. In a nutshell, the action you are performing pumps excess interstitial fluid out of the compartments AND keeps the connective tissue layers more flexible and supple.
Keep in mind as well that the ‘calf’ is not just soleus and gastroc. These muscles are the most noticeable, but only because they are superficial. The smaller, deeper muscles of the calf that dorsi flex and plantar flex the foot and toes run deep along the bones of the leg and are much more likely to get ignored, get sticky, and entrap nerves and blood vessels. When you work with a bent knee, you remove the influence of gastroc all together, and when you accentuate to the work of the fore foot and the toes you are accessing these deeper muscles — increasing circulation, tone, and pliability in one exercise.