Runners are often guilty of showing their hamstrings no love until they demand it. A hamstring injury usually happens during dynamic running activities involving sprinting, jumping and fast stops and starts. Overuse and muscle imbalances can also be to blame. Pushing through hamstring pain is a common first thought. However, that misguided approach can cause an annoying strain to morph into a debilitating tear.
Your “hamstring” isn’t just one muscle. It’s actually a group of muscles and tendons running along the back of your thigh from the pelvis to the knee. Their job is to enable the knee to move. Since the muscle group spans from the hip to the knee, the hamstring responds to forces from top to bottom of the muscle chain. Injury occurs when one of the muscles or tendons gets overloaded.
Pain is the number one symptom of a hamstring injury. It’s generally somewhere between I can work through this and OMG I can’t walk. In fact, many runners do try to run through the early stages of hamstring injury pain, because it may not be severe. But it’s wise to address the pain before it worsens.
Other symptoms include:
Failing to warm up before going for a run, muscle imbalances and a lack of mobility all contribute to the occurrence of hamstring injuries.
Going directly from your car or desk to an uptempo run taxes muscles before they are primed for exercise, meaning they are more likely to strain or tear. If mobility is already compromised (for example, you can’t touch your toes), the sudden load, as well as rapid stops and starts, adds additional strain to tight muscles. Even with muscle imbalances, our bodies will compensate to get the work done. However, short-term compensations can lead to long-term injuries. If glutes are weak, hamstrings are going to pick up the slack. And, in cases where quads are more developed than the hamstrings, not only are they doing a disproportional amount of work, they can also pull the pelvis forward, which further tightens hamstrings.
When you feel hamstring pain, stop what you are doing! Do not try to push through the pain.
Apply ice to help with pain and swelling.
Wearing compression tights, thigh sleeves or a bandage may help control swelling.
Elevate your leg when seated.
Once pain has lessened—usually after a few days—begin stretching and strengthening the hamstring with eccentric exercises (slow lunges, dead lifts and eccentric heel drops). This also helps to improve muscle balance and mobility, meaning you can come back from injury even stronger than before.
Use pain as your guide to determine when to resume running. Plan to return with a reduced workload to prevent a relapse.
See your doctor or sports therapist for severe pain and if your range of motion is effected. They may order an MRI to better see the injured tissue. Surgery may be required for a torn muscle, but strains generally heal on their own.
A sore hamstring is your body’s way of asking for stretching and strengthening to be added to the training plain. Even in cases where nothing hurts, if you can’t touch your toes or shins, it’s a good indicator you have tight hamstrings. Sitting all day at work only makes it worse.
A regular stretching and rolling program will loosen tight muscles and help to improve mobility. Strength training is very important. In addition to slow lunges, dead lifts and eccentric heel drops, add lateral jumps, single leg deadlifts, bridge and clamshell exercises to your weekly schedule.
Be sure to warm up dynamically before your run and afterwards take time to stretch and roll. Remember, sudden stops and starts can exacerbate hamstring pain, so do not bounce when you stretch.
Another focus should be on good running form. If you’re injured or suspect your form could use a tweak or two, have a friend film you. Hire a coach or schedule a session with a physical therapist, as they can best help to assist in changing your running form.
Make sure this important running muscle is taken care of.
Hamstring strains can be some of the most chronic running injuries. Here are some treatment and prevention tips.
In this video, learn how to identify the problem, treat the symptoms and prevent future instances of injury.