Hamstring Pain in Runners: Prevention and Recovery

Hamstrings are crucial to running. When the quadriceps contract with the landing of each footfall, the hamstrings act as an opposing muscle to prevent your knee from overextending. Strong hamstrings are a key component of injury and hamstring pain prevention.

Building Strong Hamstrings

Weight training is important to strong hamstrings. Many runners find themselves skimping on the weight lifting regiment in favor of pounding the pavement. When looking at hamstring health, this isn’t a good choice.

hamstring health - kettlebell exercises
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Some examples of lifts that engage hamstring muscles are deadlifts, cleans and lying leg curls. For runners who don’t know their way around the gym, the simple one leg deadlift with a kettlebell is an easy lift that can be done in the privacy of your own home.

Dynamic Warm-Ups

Equally important is engaging in dynamic and active warm-ups. Many runners mistakenly think of static stretching as a good pre-workout choice. Actually, warming up should be dynamic. Adding butt kicks to the warm-up is an excellent way to engage hamstrings before your run. The inchworm is another dynamic stretch to add.

Dynamic Warm-Ups
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Some floor stretches are technically dynamic. For example, fire hydrant circles and leg crossovers are both. Static stretching should not happen until you have adequately warmed up the body. At that point, it’s okay to do some stretches like this.

Tackling Tight Hamstrings

Running can cause a runner’s hamstrings to lengthen and tighten up. Most runners have an instinctual response to stretch to combat the tightness. This is not always the correct reaction. If a muscle is tight due to over lengthening, stretching can actually further irritate the muscle.  Sometimes, the best course of action is to strengthen everything around the hamstring muscle. Strengthening the hip flexor and quadriceps muscles can help promote healthier hamstrings.

This means that focusing on the posterior chain is a very important concept. What is the posterior chain? It is your body’s powerhouse area. Comprised of the back, glutes, hamstring, and calves, this chain is responsible for a lot of movement, especially running.

There are some exercises that focus on the entire chain. For example, kettlebell swings, hip bridge/thrusts, and deadlifts utilize and engage the entire chain.  Strengthening the core is also a good way to help maintain adequate muscular strength. It’s all interrelated.

When Do I Call My Doctor?

If your gait seems modified, you may need to see a physician. If your pain is persistent and does not get better after a couple of days of complete rest, you probably need to see someone. If you have any type of numbness or tingling, this is another indication that a medical professional should be consulted.

A certain amount of muscle soreness is common among runners. However, if you find yourself popping over the counter medication to reduce inflammation or to help with discomfort day after day, you need help.

If, however, you rest for two to three days, have a little soreness once resuming activity, and as you start off slowly the muscle seems to loosen up and become more comfortable, that is a good sign. When resuming your normal activities, start slow!

Hamstring Injury

Hamstring strain is common in runners. These types of injuries are particularly prevalent if the runner is not varying the terrain or in treadmill running. Strains are actually microtears. If a runner is smart, he or she can usually come back from this fairly quickly. The problem is that strains can result in toughening of the tissue as scar tissue develops. This can mean the runner will experience some chronic hamstring tightness and issues thereafter.

Strains often do not completely stop a runner, and many people can continue running – just more gently than pre-injury. Slow and easy running can actually promote healing.

Hamstring pulls are less common in distance runners but often found in sprinters. A pull, which is a sudden tear in the muscle, can take a long time for a runner to recover.

You can treat hamstring strains and pulls through active stretching, ice and foam rolling.

foam rollers for hamstring pain
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High hamstring tendinopathy is literally a pain in the butt. Characterized by hamstring pain that radiates through the glute, it often starts as a dull thud and becomes increasingly more painful through repeated motion. This injury is common in cyclists and runners.

Sometimes, the pain becomes more profound once the person is sitting for long periods of time. It can become so severe that the person feels compelled to get up, stretch and walk around some.

How do you know if you have this? One way to determine this is to put your foot up on a low table or high chair. With both legs straight, try to bend over and touch the toes on the foot on the table. Pain in the upper hamstring or lower glute is a sign that this is tight and potentially injured.

High hamstring tendinopathy exercises
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There is also a partner stretch where you lie on your back, both legs straight, and have a partner gently push one leg up. Being careful not to overstretch to the point of discomfort, the hamstring area will become painful if you have tight hamstrings.  This is also a great stretch to do if you are looking to increase your own hamstring flexibility!

Treating Injury

Remembering that static stretching is not typically advisable, stretching can help you get through injury. Just remember that it should be dynamic in nature as you “wake up” the muscles.” Stretching a cold muscle is never advisable.

Foam rollers are a runner’s best friend. Get yourself a roller and roll, roll, roll your hamstrings to happiness.

When a muscle hurts, ice can be helpful. Just remember not to use continuous icing. If you are using ice on a muscle, use the twenty minutes on by twenty minutes off the rule of thumb.

Massage therapy can help when working your way through a hamstring injury. Even a tweaked hamstring, something not quite categorized as an injury, can benefit from some sport-specific massaging.

Compression shorts can help as you work through recovery. Sometimes an injured muscle needs support as you are on the backside of an injury. Large muscle groups, compression shorts can hold things together. Some compression shorts utilize a cross-weave fabric for additional support.

As you work your way through a hamstring (or other) issue, cross-training can keep a runner sane. Aqua exercise, such as water walking or running, can be an excellent non-impact way to get your heart rate up even if you cannot run. Gentle cycling may also be something you can do if running is not an option.

Keep Those Hamstrings Healthy!

Healthy hamstrings are crucial to a runner’s health. There are preventative things in order to keep your hamstrings healthy and happy. In addition, you can do some simple things if you do have a small injury to get you back in the game as quickly as possible.

Anything from tightness to a hamstring strain, from a pull to tendinopathy can keep you from running — which no runner wants! So do everything you can to keep your feet pounding the pavement.

Sources:

10 Highest Rated Hamstring Lifts
Hamstring Warm-Up Exercises 
Owner’s Manual: Strong Hamstrings

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