Hamstrings are one of the largest muscle groups in the body. Unfortunately for runners, they are also a common source of pain and injury.
Because we often think of our hamstrings as being “tight” when they’re painful, it seems simple to assume that you can fix the problem with more stretching, right?
It may seem counterintuitive, but hamstring pain and tightness in runners is rarely due to them being too tight or shortened. Instead, they are typically over-stretched as a result of improper training techniques or running form. Rather than static stretching, hamstring pain is best addressed with a combination of strength work, cues to improve your form and properly structured training.
Your hamstrings are made up of three muscles and their tendons: the biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus. The hamstring tendons attach to both your pelvis and your knee. At the back of the pelvis, your hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity, just below your buttocks. Their opposing muscles on the front of your leg are the quadriceps.
If you picture your pelvis as a large bowl, envision the hamstrings and quadriceps working to balance that bowl, preventing it from tilting too far forward or backward. When there is an imbalance in those muscle groups, it can cause the pelvis to tilt and pull on the muscle attachments, leading to pain and injury.
When you run, your hamstrings are responsible for slowing down your lower leg as it straightens and your quads contract. Without assistance from your hamstrings, your knee would hyperextend at the end of every stride. When you overstride and your foot lands too far in front of you rather than underneath you, your hamstrings work overtime to compensate. This can lead to soreness and pain.
In addition to aggressive overstriding, erratic training can lead to a hamstring injury. Dramatic variations in mileage or too much speed work can stress your hamstrings and lead to strains and tears. Without strength training to support your running, your hamstrings may also become weak and more prone to injury. A feeling of tightness typically precedes more serious injuries like strains and tears, so it’s important to pay attention to any nagging soreness.
When a muscle is over-lengthened, it means it has been extended beyond its normal range of motion. When you’re trying to solve an over-lengthening problem, it helps to look at the opposite muscle group. In this case, that’s your quadriceps. Because hamstrings and quads work as opposing muscle groups to keep the pelvis stable, you need to help strengthen the hamstrings to counterbalance the pull of your quads on your pelvis.
Going back to the bowl analogy, when your quads are stronger than your hamstrings, the “bowl” of the pelvis is pulled forward. Tight hip flexors can also add to this effect. If your hamstrings are too weak to compensate, this pelvic tilt causes them to become stretched too far at their attachment point. If the muscle is already over-stretched, it’s easy to see why more stretching won’t help improve your pain.
When your hamstrings are sore and over-stretched, static stretching makes them worse. Instead, you’ll need to focus on the source of the problem. Hamstring injuries can be hard to heal and can become chronic if they aren’t treated appropriately. Be sure to address any nagging pain as soon as it arises, and consult a doctor or physical therapist if your injury worsens or if you’re unable to heal it on your own.
Caught early, hamstring injuries can be managed with rest, a revised training plan, and strength work. At the first sign of injury, work your way through the following steps:
- Use a foam roller to work on your quads, hamstrings and hip flexors. Avoid static stretching, which can further aggravate your injury.
- Strengthen your entire core (not just your abs) to support the work your hamstrings do in maintaining a stable pelvis. A strong core helps reduce their workload.
- Strengthen your hamstrings and glutes with single-leg deadlifts, singe-leg glute bridges and eccentric hamstring curls to address the imbalance that likely exists between your quadriceps and hamstrings. Start with bodyweight exercises and build yourself up to heavier weights very gradually.
- Use form cues to improve your technique and avoid overstriding, which also contributes to hamstring stress. While overhauling your form is rarely necessary, think about cues that help you run tall, increase your cadence, and land lightly with your foot underneath you and not in front of you.
When you are back to running pain-free, rebuild your mileage and speed sessions carefully. Start with easy running and slowly increase your volume. Speed work should be added gradually, starting with more aerobic workouts like fartleks and strides before building back up to any significant hill workouts or intervals requiring explosive speed.
Knowing how to properly address hamstring pain is half the battle. Once you know strengthening is key and stretching can do more harm than good, you’ll be well on your way to happy, healthy hamstrings.