When you feel the familiar ache of a sore hamstring, it’s natural to think that you should stretch it out. But when the muscle is tight because it’s over-lengthened, stretching will not resolve the problem – it’s already overstretched. In this case, it’s helpful to look at the opposing muscle group to figure out where the problem lies. Here’s a quick anatomy refresher to help us understand this issue.
The hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity, which is a part of the back aspect of the pelvis and where runners typically feel pain. The opposing muscle group is the quadriceps, which attach to the front aspect of the pelvis. The hip flexor muscles assist the quadriceps, attaching on the front aspect of the pelvis and the lumbar vertebrae of the lower back, just above the pelvis.
The hamstrings and quadriceps work in opposition to keep the pelvis stable; however, the movements and forces involved in running make this task much more difficult. Picture guy wires attached to either side of a telephone pole – the pole being our pelvis and spine, the wires being the hamstrings and the quadriceps. The wires – or our opposing muscle groups – maintain tension on the pole and keep it in its proper position.
However, the pelvis has movement, so keeping it balanced becomes much more complicated. The quadriceps are generally a stronger muscle group than the hamstrings. This is evident when lifting weights, as most people can push more weight on the leg extension machine (quadriceps) than they can lift on the leg curl machine (hamstrings). This is a normal strength difference, and when the muscle groups stay within their normal strength difference ratio, all is well.
But this ratio can become too off-balanced, especially for runners. Typically, the quadriceps win the strength battle, pulling the pelvis into a slight anterior rotation or forward tilt. The hip flexors get in on this action, too, assisting the quadriceps.
As the pelvis rotates and shifts, it elevates the hamstring attachment site, pulling the muscles up and over-lengthening them. In the massage world, this is sometimes referred to as ‘locked long’. Meanwhile, the hamstrings hung onto their attachment site for dear life.
Of course, all this activity increases the risk of an injury. Again, picture the pole, now being pulled to one side by a stronger wire. The other wire – the hamstrings – is being pulled and is overstretched or over-lengthened. The pelvic anterior rotation also results in tight, shortened quadriceps, hip flexors and back muscles.
Then, to compound the problem further, when we run, we swing the leg forward, which lengthens the hamstrings even more. This increases stress, especially at the attachment site, with risks including tendonitis and even muscle tearing. Pain is the first warning sign, and you are wise to pay attention to this signal.
So, now that you understand how the hamstrings work, let’s figure out how to solve the issue…
Here are 5 key stretches and strength moves to help you give your tight hamstrings a little extra TLC.
Single leg glute bridge
Lie down with bent knees. Lift one leg and raise your core with the other. With your body straight, hold the move briefly and repeat. Add 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps to your routine twice a week.
Lying hamstring stretch
Lying on your back, extend one leg straight up in the air and gently draw your toes towards your forehead, assisting the move by using your hands on the back of the thigh of the lifted leg.
Strengthen your core and abdominal muscles with planks. Rest your weight on your toes and forearms. Brace your stomach muscles, holding a straight line with your body for 30 to 60 seconds.
On all fours, inhale and tilt your pelvis back, sticking your tailbone up. Draw your navel in, look up, exhale and tip your pelvis forward. Tuck your tailbone, round your spine and drop your head.
Standing quad stretch
While standing tall, with your core braced and shoulders back, bend one leg behind you and pull your foot up to your backside, using the hand on that side.
How to care for your hamstrings
- Ice the attachment site immediately after any exercise for 15 to 20 minutes. Try wearing compression shorts to help support the affected muscles, too.
- Cross train with the stair climber or swimming to keep your cardio fitness up. Stair climbing uses a smaller stride, so this action might not bother your hamstring.
- Massage can help by relaxing tight muscles, improving flexibility, facilitating circulation and healing, and restoring joint range of motion.
- Visit your doctor if the pain is persistent, if you are limping or altering your gait in anyway, and especially if you notice any bruising.
- Physiotherapy can help in healing the hamstrings and correcting any muscle weaknesses or imbalances.
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