As runners, our bodies take quite a beating during training and racing. We some times feel these effects pretty quickly after a run, but more often, it's a more gradual issue. And when these nagging issues go untreated, they can become more bothersome and even painful, affecting performance. One common area of concern for runners is the hamstring complex (the muscles on the posterior side of your thigh). When the hamstrings become very tight and sore, it is often a sign of a strain (when a muscle is stretched or torn). In most acute cases, runners find temporary relief with stretching and foam rolling, so they assume this is the only way to treat bothersome hamstrings. But throwing your foot up on a park bench forcing yourself into a stretch or applying tons of pressure to an already tender muscle can actually be counter productive. In reoccurring or ongoing situations (which is most common among distance runners), hamstrings feel "tight" and sore because they are actually over-lengthened. Which is probably why stretching and rolling has not provided much relief at this point. So what can you do when your hammies are sore, tight or painful and it starts affecting your run? Below are some mobility exercises you can incorporate into your cross-training and/or warm up to help treat and prevent hamstring issues.
But first, let's identify the function of the hamstrings, how they become tight and how that can effect your running.
What Do the Hamstrings Do?
Your hamstrings include the large muscles that run along the back of your thighs, from your pelvis to the top of your lower legs, called the biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus. In their simplest form, they bend the knee. But from a functional standpoint, they serve to decelerate hip flexion and knee extension, and help to slow the foot before initial ground contact. So blah blah blah, basically in distance running, hamstrings play a key roll in the drive phase, which is where you generate the most power. And more power = better running economy.
How Are They "Injured"
Hamstring problems are common among distance runners who have significantly increased their workload or prematurely introduced speed work. Unlike sprinters or other athletes who use quick, explosive movements, hamstring strains occur more gradually for distance runners rather than an immediate "pull" during a particular exercise. Runners may also notice how their tightness tends to ease up during running but return afterwards. This is why many runners assume their hamstrings are just "tight" and simply need to be stretched or rolled. But as mentioned above, hamstring strains in distance runners are caused by the continual over-lengthening of the muscles. Once a muscle is strained, it tends to further tighten and become painful when stretched and palpated, which is why stretching and rolling can actually aggravate the strain even more.
How To Prevent Injury
Having a well-rounded program which includes a progressive mileage build up, appropriate speed work and of course strength and conditioning will help prevent hamstring strains (as well as other nagging injuries). Keep in mind, your strength and conditioning program is not simply limited to weight training and should also include stability, flexibility, ploymetircs as well as restorative exercises (I will go into more detail about the other components in later posts). For now, let's discuss some hamstring specific mobility exercises we use with our athletes at our facility. As I mentioned above, simply stretching can actually be counterproductive. So the following exercises provide a more integrated approach to improving hamstring strength and mobility for injury prevention.
Coaching Cues: Step one foot slightly in front of the other. Flex the forward foot while keeping the knee extended (straight) and scoop your arms down towards the ground then upwards. Repeat with the other foot to the front and do about 10 scoops per foot, reaching deeper each time.
Side Lunge with Toe Up
Coaching Cues: Take a wide lateral step with one leg, bending that knee and drawing your hips down and back. Keep the opposite leg straight and rotate the flexed foot upwards towards. Hold for a 3 count, returning back to original standing position and repeating on opposite side. Perform 10 reps per side.
Banded Leg Drops
When to Decrease or Stop Running?
So with all that being said, there still remains the question, to run or not to run with "tight" hamstrings? As long as you feel no major discomfort, it is OK to continue running with a moderately tight hamstring. At that point, mobility exercises along with foam rolling and stretching may be all you need. Consider eliminating speed work and decreasing your weekly mileage until tightness subsides. If running is painful, I would suggest taking several days off completely. Avoid over-stretching the hamstring to prevent further tears. Use the foam roller sparingly if at all when the muscles are very tender to not further irritate the tissue. Take it slow and easy when returning to running and be sure to incorporate mobility exercises into your warm up and cross training. After all your efforts you're still experience hamstring concerns or the injury seems to be rather significant, discontinue activity and seek the help of a medical professional for further treatment.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this blog is not designed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual. If you believe you have a true medical concern, you should contact your medical care provider. I am, however, a certified strength and conditioning coach through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. The above information is from my expertise working with competitive athletes, fellow runners and from my own personal experience.