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.