Runners need a significant amount of flexibility in their legs to run to their absolute potential. And so leg muscle fitness is something very critical in running. One of the two leg muscles- quadriceps and hamstring, the latter facilitates knee flexion, which is essential in sports like running. It is also true that of those two leg muscles, hamstrings are easily prone to injury and damage. One such hamstring injury that runners often face is hamstring tightness. It is a nuisance of a condition where the pain is experienced in the topmost part of the leg, just below the buttocks, making the backs stiff and the lives painful. According to conventional wisdom, a little stretching goes a long way with muscle tightness. But what if these darn tight hamstrings are unfixable through stretching exercises?
What do you do then? Are you plagued with tight hamstrings for eternity?
Fortunately, no! Keep reading to learn how to relieve hamstring tightness.
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How to Determine Hamstring Tightness
Not all pain in the hamstring can be attributed to tight hamstrings. Here’s how you can determine if you have stiff hamstrings:
Assume the standing position and slowly shift your body weight back to your heels. Simultaneously push your hips out as far as possible. Stop the motion when you notice your lower back begins to round.
The position you are at shows the full length of your hamstrings. Ideally, the angle between your torso and thigh should be 90 degrees. If you are unable to bend or make a 90-degree angle between the torso and thigh then you are most likely suffering from tight hamstrings.
Hamstring tightness is not same as a hamstring pull or strain, which is a severe hamstring injury with sharp, sudden pain in the hamstring muscles.
Reasons for Tight Hamstrings
Before we jump on the tips to treat those bad boys, let’s understand the reasons for tight hamstrings.
Hamstrings are a group three muscles running along the posterior of the thigh, from hip to the back of the knee. The hamstring muscles are critical to athletes such as runners, players, and dancers.
Here are the main reasons for tight hamstring:
Protective Tension of the Hamstrings
Individuals with an odd anterior pelvic tilt often suffer from hamstring tightness. Hamstrings are designed to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. So, the hamstrings in people with extreme anterior pelvic tilt are constantly “at work” to prevent extension-related back pain, like spondylolysis (vertebral fractures), spondylolisthesis (vertebral "slippage"), and lumbar erector tightness/strains. This extra stretch on the hamstrings causes them to stiffen up. The problem is usually noticed in females and athletes.
Sometimes hamstring muscles are not the source of hamstring tightness. The symptoms of it may also come from the sciatic nerve entrapment on the soft tissues, travelling through the hamstring and down the calf muscles. The sciatic nerve lies underneath the hips; a significant compression of the nerve causes a painful condition called sciatica that includes numbness and tingling sensation down the leg. This condition needs appropriate professional medical care.
Truly Tight Hamstrings
For hamstrings to become stiff, one has to spend a lot of time in the ‘knee flexed, hip extended’ position. And sedentary jobs facilitate such position where there are posterior pelvic tilt and knee flexion for longer periods of time. Hence, we find working people complain of tight hamstrings more.
Old Hamstring Strain
A previous hamstring injury can leave you feeling “tight or stiff” in the concerned area. Once the area suffers a trauma, it is never the same from a tissue density standpoint. The injured region gets gunked in the absence physiotherapy. And that could lead to tight hamstrings.
Acute Hamstring Strain
And a hamstring strain will cause hamstring tightness- Period. It could an actual hamstring pull or a tendinosis (an overuse of tissue condition where tissue loading surpasses tissue tolerance for loading).
Why Stretching Doesn’t Relieve Tight Hamstrings
Logic says that stretching workouts should help you relieve tension in the hamstring muscles. But many a time the stretching the hamstring is incompetent in relieving the soreness. Why?
Well, a muscle is tight because it’s over-lengthened which is the case in runner hamstrings. The muscles are shortened due to contraction and thus stretching it more will not fix the problem. On the contrary, stretching is likely to irritate the sore muscle.
To probe deeper into the root cause, we should shift our attention to the opposing muscle group, i.e. the quadriceps. The hamstrings and the quadriceps work together to keep the pelvis balanced. Comparatively, the quadriceps are stronger muscles and typically there is a normal strength difference ratio between the two sets of muscles.
However, in running, the involved movements and forces disrupt the strength ratio. And because the quadriceps are inherently stronger, they tend to pull the pelvis into an anterior rotation. In addition, the hip flexors also assist the quadriceps in pushing the pelvis anteriorly. This leads to the raising of the hamstring attachment site, meaning that they are pulled up and as the pelvis shift, the hamstrings get over-lengthened.
The pelvic anterior rotation not only over-lengthens the hamstrings but also shortens our back muscles. Thus, shortened quadriceps, tight, shortened hip flexors and back muscles, and tight but over-lengthened hamstring muscles together conceive a “tight” situation in the lower body causing stiffness and soreness.
Athletes such as runners should be extra careful as the leg is swung forward in running which further lengthens the hamstrings causing more stress in the muscles. This additional stress endangers the hamstrings more by putting it at a greater risk of running injuries like tendonitis and muscle tears.
Tips to Relieve Hamstring Tightness
While the good old foam roller routine is favourable, you can go beyond the foam sometimes. Instead of working or stretching the hamstring muscles, let’s work the other related muscles like the quadriceps, pelvis, core muscles, etc.
- Stretch hip flexors and your quadriceps with quad stretch. Standing on your right leg, bring your left heel back and hold the right foot by its ankle. Slowly pull the foot toward the tailbone keeping the knees aligned and your back straight. Perform on the other leg too.
- Perform 10 minutes of these hips strengthening exercises to avoid hamstring injuries.
- Do hamstring stretch by lying on your back. Avoid standing hamstring stretch where you bend and try to touch the toes.
- Stretch your low back muscles by using the low back stretch and pelvic tilt exercise
- Perform plank workouts to strengthen core muscles, especially the abdominal muscles.
- Do leg curls to strengthen hamstring muscles. Avoid using any heavy weight. Try to move the muscle through its full range of motion, hold it for some time at the top of the action, and then slowly release. Do it twice a week.
- Apply ice compression on the affected site immediately after exercise for 15 to 20 minutes. You can wear compression shorts to support the affected muscles.
- Keep up the cardio by cross-training with the stair climber or swimming.
- Massaging the tight muscles can relax them. It will improve flexibility, facilitate blood circulation and healing, and restore joint range of motion.
If the pain is persistent and it alters your gait or makes you limp then visit a physician immediately, especially if any bruising is noticed. Proper physical therapy can also promote healing and work on correcting any existing muscle weaknesses or imbalances.
How to Lose Tight Hamstrings the Yoga Way
Aside from the above simple tips, here are five ways to loosen up the tight hamstring in the yoga way. Check out!
Staff Pose into Seated Forward Bend (Dandasana into Paschimottanasana)
Sit on the butt with a straight spine and your legs stretched out in front of you. Inhale arms toward the ceiling and slowly exhale as you try to touch the toes, rest the hands on the shins. Keep the sit-bones on the ground. Hold at least 10 breaths before returning to the initial position.
Intense Forward Bending Pose (Uttanasana)
Stand up straight, lengthen the front torso and gradually fold forward towards your toes. The goal is to reach the ground, rest the palm on the feet if you can. But if you cannot then hold onto your elbows for stability. Hold at least 20 breaths before releasing the posture.
Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Stand straight, take the right leg to the back and turn the foot to a 45-degree angle. Stretch the arms to shoulder height and reach the ankle of the right leg with your right hand keeping the knees straight. Push the left hip to towards the left side as you do the asana. Hold at least 10 breaths before returning to the initial stance. Perform on the other side as well.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana A)
Begin by standing upright and bring the feet wide apart as far as possible. Pivot the toes slightly inwards- this will allow greater release in the hips and lumbar spine. Slowly bend forward from the hips (and not from the waist) to reach the floor. As your hands touch the floor, walk them underneath the hips. Keep your hands at shoulder width distance apart, and position them in between the feet. Next, push your chin gently towards your chest as you lower the head towards the floor. This will lengthen the spine.
Hold at least 10 breaths. Bend the knees slightly to return to standing position.
Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
This is one of the best exercises for hamstrings. Lie down on your back and bring the right knee into your chest. Now hold the big toe of the right foot with the first two fingers and the thumb. Gradually stretch the leg up towards the ceiling and breath by breath ease the foot towards your head. You can use a stretch strap for a gentle stretch. Keep the left hip on the ground. Hold at least 10 breath's before switching sides.
Stiffness in hamstrings may also be caused by improper footwear as well. Shoes with raised and cushioned heels do not allow us to use our heels properly when walking. While in the standing position, these shoes make us shift our hips forward. All that burdens the hamstring, leaving the gluteals underdeveloped as postural muscles.
Some of the other ways to prevent hamstring stiffness are:
- Take a walk break in the office every 10 to 15 minutes.
- Switch workstation to an upright or standing position.
- Eat your lunch standing.
- If possible, walk it to office and back.
- You can do hamstring stretches while watching TV as well.
Stiffness in hamstring leads to the lower leg and/or back pain. Hamstring tightness can further mess with your posterior-chain movements which run from the lower back down behind the legs. These chain movements are very important in athletic movements like running, jumping, and throwing, etc.
A bunch of tight hamstrings cannot be overlooked and needs attention if you do not want to live with restricted physical movements. Be conscious to keep moving your body, avoid setting down into one position for a longer time. Our body is designed to move. So, be active to keep the blood flowing and your hamstrings will fix itself in time.