Quick test: Point your toes toward your shins. How far can your ankle bend?
This movement is called dorsiflexion and is a key part of the movement. Limited ankle dorsiflexion mobility has been linked to common injuries like plantar fasciitis and ankle sprains, and can increase your risk of knee and hip injuries. This leads to decreased performance across a variety of sports and activities.
If you want to improve ankle dorsiflexion, there are many resources, from muscle stretching to strengthening joint mobility. Typically, these focus on the superficial calf muscle—the gastrocnemius, which you can feel if you put your fingers on the back of your calf or ankle joint.
Each of them must have a role. However, there is one key part that is often overlooked: the soleus muscle.
“The soleus is an often forgotten calf muscle,” says physiotherapist Dustin Willis. “It’s a bit out of sight, out of mind because it’s deep in the gastrocnemius, which you can easily see and feel. Like that muscle, it also feeds on the Achilles tendon.”
Studies on soleus and ankle mobility have shown that gaining more flexibility in these muscles can increase dorsiflexion by about four degrees. This is significant because the average ankle range in that direction is usually around 20 degrees, so we’re talking about a change that covers 20 percent of the normal range of motion!
Additionally, there is emerging research showing that the relationship between soleus flexibility and ankle mobility potentially plays a role in athletic performance. A 2022 study found that soleus stretching in soccer players significantly improved ankle mobility, maximal plantarflexion power (think of the power when pushing off with the foot), and running speed in both straight-line and curved sprints.
“A key difference between the gastrocnemius and the soleus is that, unlike the gastrocnemius muscle, the soleus does not cross over the knee joint,” says podiatrist Justin Franson. “This changes the function and role of the two muscles, which should reflect how they integrate.” In other words, the soleus muscle plays a different role than many of its hide-up counterparts (especially in knee function) and so the most effective way to stretch it will look different from your typical calf stretch.
Accordingly, I developed this progressive, step-by-step soleus stretching protocol. Give it a try and see how your ankle range of motion increases!
6-Step Soles Stretching Plan for Better Ankle Mobility
It is a six-phase plan with each step more aggressive than the previous one. Start with phase one and progress to phase two when you can hold the stretch for three sets of one minute without feeling any tightness. Repeat for Stage 2, Stage Three, etc. until you hit Stage Five. Once you reach level five, continue using that stretch as part of your daily routine to keep the soles nice and flexible.
1. Seated bent-knee soleus stretch
Sit on the ground with a foam roller (or something similar in size) under your knees. Take your hands and gently pull the front of your leg until you feel a stretch.
2. Seated bent-knee soles stretch with straps
Sit on the ground with a foam roller (or something similar in size) under your knees. Place one end of the band (or a belt) looped around the front of the leg and pull back.
3. Bend-knee soleus stretch
With feet leaning against a wall or chair in a squatting position (one foot in front of the other), bend forward at both knees until you feel a stretch.
4. Standing stretched against the wall
Stepping into a squat position, place the balls of your feet on the wall and bend the knees slightly until you feel a stretch.
5. Standing soleus stretch step off
When standing on a step with a staggered stance (one foot in front of the other), place the back foot in a position where the heel is away from the edge of the step. Bend the back knee and lower the heel until you feel a stretch. If you’re worried about your balance, place one hand on a wall or use a ladder with a banister.
6. Single leg standing soles stretch off step
This is the same as stage five except now you are lifting the front leg (which is not extending). I recommend doing this to hold both for safety and to get a deeper stretch.