After my last blog post on overtraining syndrome, it is clear I will need to do a follow up on it in the future, so stay tuned! Last week I had two runners tell me that their hamstrings are tight. Interestingly, a lot of runners think their hamstrings are tight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in fact tight, but that they have pain or a sensation in their hamstrings, so they equate it to “tight” hamstrings and try to stretch them like a rubber band. Is that truly the answer to the problem?
I think it is common knowledge that the hamstrings are located on the back of the upper leg, but their function is not equally understood. I won’t bore everyone with their actual names, but their actions are to extend the hip or pull your leg into swing after foot push off from the ground and to create knee flexion. Equally important, they work opposite the quadricep muscles, by decelerating or controlling the opposite action of the quadriceps and vice versa as depicted in the illustration above. Have you ever heard of someone being “quad dominant”? What happens if there is a big strength difference between the quadriceps and the hamstrings? Which muscle group do you think would be stronger and tighter and which one would be weaker and maybe in a more lengthened position? I will give you a hint, breakdown the term quad dominant. That’s right folks, the muscle group that is strong (dominant) would be the quads and the poor hamstrings are the weak, lengthened muscle group. The point is that sometimes when people think their hamstrings are tight, the discomfort they feel may be because they are too weak for the work they are being asked to do, too weak for the quadriceps, or strained. None of the above require you to stretch the crap out of your hamstrings though and that is a fact.
One of the reasons the poor hamstrings give you feedback, if you will, aka discomfort, and previously mentioned, is they are too weak to do the work they are asked to do. The hamstrings are active during the swing phase of the running gait, which is 60% of the gait cycle. A lot of the work is eccentric work or the lengthening of the muscles to oppose the contracting quadriceps. With that, I ask you this…when was the last time you did some eccentric training of your hamstrings? I have read in the evidence-based literature that eccentric exercises are common in injury rehabilitation settings, so it would seem appropriate that they should be common place in preventative settings. Prehab anyone?
In addition to some eccentric hamstring exercises, lumbopelvic stability exercises are more than likely warranted. Say what? Basically, exercises that that stabilize the pelvis. I am not saying that runners don’t get tight hamstrings. I am saying that there are other potential issues other than tight hamstrings that give you discomfort in the hamstrings. As a matter of fact, I have a chronically annoyed hamstring that I still catch myself saying “Oh man, my right hamstring is tight” even though I know that I spend several hours a day tilting to one side during my day job as a dental hygienist, creating pelvic asymmetry. There is discomfort but it doesn’t mean it is tight.
When I do movement screenings on my runners I very rarely see tight hamstrings, but almost always see weak hamstrings and tight hip flexors, including the one quadricep muscle that contributes to hip flexion. The a-ha moment here is don’t stretch the crap out of your hamstrings because that may be contributing to the problem, not improving the problem.
Holy heck! I know I have readers from coast to coast, but here in California we endured record heat waves, which does not make outdoor running very fun. Kudos to everyone that got out there and did what they needed to do, despite uninviting running conditions.
When I think of “running conditions”, I don’t think just about the climate or the running route topography, I look at the bigger picture, including life outside of running. How life plays into running or more accurately, how running plays off life. I am currently writing the training schedule for 25 runners preparing for October-January half and full marathon races. As October is soon approaching and November is not too far behind, my runners training for October and November races have the volume turned up on them for mileage, as well as some greater intensity workouts. A small part of me feels bad, but really this is the beast we call endurance training and I also know with 100% certainty that I have their very best interest in mind and would never overload them. This is the difference between optimal vs maximal training. Optimal being, just the right amount of miles at the right time, with just the right amount of intensity, at just the right time, with plenty of opportunities for rest throughout a “season”. Maximal being, too much, too soon for distance and intensity, without proper rest and recovery.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed far too many runners train too hard leading to injury or overtraining. Overtraining syndrome (OTS) does exist in sports psychology, but interestingly, it is difficult to diagnose, mostly because it is of multifactorial etiology and signs and symptoms of OTS are different amongst individuals. Researchers on the subject emphasize the word “syndrome” to acknowledge that training is not the sole causative factor of OTS (Meeusen et al., 2006).
To understand the etiology of OTS beside an imbalance of excessive overload and inadequate recovery, additional factors must be included; exclusion of organic diseases or infections, dietary restrictions, inadequate carbohydrate/protein ingestion, and iron and magnesium deficiency. Important factors to take into account for OTS include the sum of multiple life stressors along with physical training such as: sleep loss, exposure to environmental stresses, work stresses, and interpersonal difficulties. Additionally, there is a complex set of psychological factors to consider regarding the development of OTS such as: excessive expectations from self, friends, or family, competitive stress, personality structure, and social environment (Meeusen et al., 2006).
I know I load my runners up properly for them to adapt to the training, not breakdown from training. However, I have no control over what they eat, how much they eat, how they rest, how they deal with their work/family/training balance or other stressors in their lives. But if I had to pinpoint one factor that seems to be a reoccurring problem/ misunderstanding, it is the nutritional factors. I know, I know, I have already covered nutrition (if you haven't read the nutrition blog, get on it!). But I know many workout junkies and runners that have this poor misunderstanding of how the body works, “Today I burned 700 calories during my exercise/run, so I can only eat 700 calories today”. What!? If I only ate 700 calories on a non-running day, that would put one leg in the grave for me, never mind a running day. That is a calorie restricted diet and a sure-fire way to lead you to improper recovery and goal failure over time. This is one of those subjects where people in the past have said to me, “But I have always eaten under 1000 calories a day and I do okay in my runs and races”. Uhmm…okay if you are okay with doing just “okay” in your runs and races. If you want to be the best you can be, then you need to fuel your body like an athlete. Bottom line, true story!
What we “burn” for exercise is not the only energy we expend, therefore, not the only number of calories we need to "put back in". The sum of calories a person uses/burns in a day is known as total daily energy expenditure and it comes from several sources including resting metabolic rate, the thermogenic effect of food, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption and last, but not least, exercise. Guess what folks? Just to perform normal activities of daily living, excluding exercise, you need at least 1,200 calories a day…and that is for a small person, not even an average sized person!
Sometimes when I am writing my blog posts, I know there is someone out there I am offending and someone out there wondering if I am writing about them…because I get text messages regarding the latter. To anyone I am offending, that is certainly not my intention. My only intention in my blog posts is to pass on valuable information to help my readers be the best runners they can be and if you are not a runner, just be informed. That being said, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are other subjects that you want more info on or if you are reading the blog posts on the Run With Gina Facebook page, please leave a comment or reach out via messenger with any subjects you want to learn more about.
P.S. Overreaching and burnout are different than overtraining…just an fyi.
Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Gleeson, M., Rietjens, G., Steinacker, J., & Urhausen, A. (2006). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome. European Journal of Sport Science, 6(1), 1-14.