Whether you are new to Vibram FiveFingers or even an avid minimal runner, one of the most important things to know about is how to keep your calves strong and in shape. If you are just starting out then you are probably noticing that after your first or even your 6th run in your new VFFs, your calves and shins will feel like rocks.
Your first thought may be to try and stretch them out but as we previously posted, you may want to be careful with that technique. There are a handful of calf exercises that will help you strengthen not only your calves but they will also help with ankle support. If you keep up with these simple exercises at least once a week you should be able to battle that pain in your muscles.
For the first exercise of the post, let's start off with the most basic exercise for your calves. Basic, but a great workout. Simply do sprints for 10-20 second sets. A good place for this are flat grass fields, such as soccer fields, parks, etc. For more of a challenge, sprinting up hills will do the trick, and them some. It's also perfect for creating a simple routine with. Sprint up, walk down (to catch your breath).
Standing Calf Raises
For this exercise you will require either 2 dumbbells or a barbell with free weights. First thing to remember is to not over do the weight as it will cause more damage to your Achilles tendons if not completed right. If available place a 45 pound plate on the ground, place your toes on the edge of the plate giving you flexibility to place your ankles on the ground at an angle. With the dumbbells in each hand or the barbell balancing on your shoulders, slowly press up through your toes until you feel your calves start to tighten, hold for 3 seconds and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat this for 3 sets of 8-10 reps, taking a 30-45 second rest between each set. If you are a beginner, don't be intimidated to use any weights. Your body weight alone is enough.
Sitting Calf Raise
Nearly every gym with have a seated calf raise machine. As stated above do not over do the weight on this either. Sit on the calf machine, lower the leg restraint so that your quads and calves are at a 90 degree angle, Unlock the machine and slowly lower the weight to stretch out your calf (you should be getting lower than you were on the standing calf raises), push up through your toes and hold the weight for a count of 3. Repeat this for 3 sets of 15 reps, taking a 45 second rest between each set.
A balance board will be a wood plank with a half rubber ball attached underneath it or it will be half an ab ball attached to a plastic board. This exercise is not only designed to help out your calves but it will also help strengthen your ankles and work on your balance. Place balance board in front of you, stand on the board and try to hold the balance for as long as possible, Repeat 2-3 times. A variation of this exercise you can try if you have bad balance is Ankle Circles. Find a sturdy surface to hold yourself up (Squat rack works great). List the right leg in the air (just around 2 inches from the floor) and perform a circular motion stemming from the big toe. Pretend you are drawing a circle. One circle equals 1 repetition, Repeat for 2 sets doing 15 reps per leg.
Anterior Tibialis-SMR(Self-Myofascial Release)
This exercise will help you with the muscles that are on either side of your shins. Begin seated on the floor with your legs bent and your feet on the floor. Using a muscle roller or a rolling pin, apply pressure to the muscles on the outside of your shins, work from just below the knee to just above the ankle, pausing at points of tension for 10-30 seconds, repeat for the other leg.
Foot SMR(Self-Myofascial Release)
This is an exercise mixed with an arch tendon stretch. Start off seated with your shoes and socks removed. Using a foot roller or a similar object, such as a small section of PVC pipe, place your foot against the roller across the arch of your foot. This will be your starting position. Press down firmly, rolling across the arch of your foot. Hold for 10-30 seconds, and switch feet (this exercise will help you with those pesky arch cramps some people get when starting in vibrams).
Seated & Standing Toe Raises
This workout can be completed whether you are sitting down or standing up. Whether sitting down or standing up place your legs shoulder width apart, with your feet flat on the ground, if you are standing hold your desired dumbbell weight in each hand, or if seated place the dumbbells on your knees. Now from the starting position push up with your toes (just like you did for the calf raises), hold the weight for 3 seconds then slowly come back down and place your feet flat on the ground. Repeat for 3 sets of 12-15 reps with 45 seconds rest between sets.
These are just a few of the many calf exercises that will help you on your way to running in your VFF's pain free. These are good exercises for beginners, if you are interested in more advance techniques for your calves then lookout for part 2. And remember to keep your workouts progressive. Each week/month, add a few sets or weight to your exercise activities.