Tight hamstrings can be a common source of frustration among endurance athletes—especially those who don’t focus on strength training. But with proper care and attention paid to this muscle group, they’ll do their job for hundreds of miles without complaint.
The hamstring muscle group is one of the largest in the body. Three hamstring muscles are responsible for decelerating your lower leg when the quadriceps contract, straightening the leg. Without this braking action, your knee would hyperextend at the end of each stride.
A common problem that often precedes a formal injury is a feeling of tightness or soreness in the hamstring, likely due to aggressive over-striding (reaching in front of your body) or too much speed training. Tightness can also be caused by a lack of strength training or poor training habits like wild swings in mileage.
To address this potential injury, a lot of runners are drawn to static stretching. After all, to relieve a tight muscle you stretch it out. Right?
While that might be a tempting treatment strategy, it may actually make the problem worse, as the hamstring, rather the being too short and needing to be stretched, is often over-lengthened.
What is Over-Lengthening?
An over-lengthened muscle is over-stretched and extended beyond its normal range of motion. This may happen for one of or a combination of several reasons.
First, runners have quads that are sometimes dramatically stronger than their hamstrings. And while quads are usually stronger than hamstrings (you can almost always lift more during a quadricep extension exercise than a hamstring curl exercise, for example), this imbalance can be exacerbated so that the pelvis is pulled into an anterior (forward) pelvic tilt.
As the pelvis tilts forward, like a bowl spilling its contents out the front, it elevates the area in the back of the pelvic bone where the hamstrings attach, causing over-lengthening.
Hamstrings also become over-stretched because of poor running form—which is often related to that pelvic tilt. Over-striding and “reaching out” with the foot places extra strain on the hamstrings as they over-stretch.
When they become sore or tight, runners often rush to stretch the muscle to “loosen up” or relieve the tension that they perceive is causing their discomfort.
But hamstrings that are achy because of over-lengthening will not respond positively to static stretching because the hamstring is already over-stretched. It doesn’t need to be stretched – that may make the injury worse.
Anytime a muscle is damaged, whether due to a strain, tear, or over-lengthening, static stretching is likely to make the problem more severe. Instead, treatment should focus on the cause of the problem and include a holistic approach to tight hamstrings that addresses many potential causes.
4 Ways to Relieve Tight Hamstrings
If you find yourself with tight hamstrings, avoid static stretching. Instead, a combination of low-risk treatment strategies can be employed to get you back to running.
• Roll the quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors to stimulate blood flow and relax any muscles that might be carrying too much tension. Massage, via foam rolling or using a massage stick or tool like Roll Recovery R8, has also been shown to reduce stress hormones and inflammation while improving range of motion.
• Strengthen the abdominal muscles by incorporating a variety of plank exercises to help keep the pelvis in a stable, neutral position. This will help counteract an anterior pelvic tilt caused by the quadriceps being too strong compared to the hamstrings
• Strengthen the hamstrings with single-leg deadlifts, singe-leg glute bridges, and eccentric hamstring curls to help make up the strength imbalance that likely exists between your quadriceps and hamstrings. A well-rounded strength program that’s specific to runners is a first step if you’re not already prioritizing strength training.
• Improve your running technique by implementing a series of form cues (as well as focused, well-planned training to help make this transition manageable). You’ll want to focus on cadence, posture, and landing underneath your body instead of in front of it.
A physical therapist will likely be necessary if you’re experiencing chronic strains, a tear, or severe tendinopathy. Those injuries can become long-term if not addressed quickly and aggressively, so don’t put off addressing this type of injury!
If your hamstring recently started feeling tight, however, this series of interventions will likely not only provide relief from tight hamstrings but also address the root causes of most minor hamstring niggles—and prevent future problems.