Being a runner means getting used to running injuries. They are common occurrences, unfortunately. But even when not injured, many runners will have muscle tightness.
Tight hamstrings are one of the most common aches for a runner to experience. No matter where you are in your running journey, learning how to prevent and treat tight hamstrings is a good idea.
But first, it’s important to understand how tight hamstrings happen so you know the best ways to fix them.
What Are Tight Hamstrings?
The first thing you need to know is that the hamstring comprises three distinct muscles. These are:
- Biceps femoris
These work together to facilitate movement and support your posture while standing, walking, and running.
Generally, when we speak about tight hamstrings, we refer to all three muscles being stiff, sore, and having a limited range of movement.
It may feel like the muscles are “bunched up,” and you might not be able to reach down and touch your toes without pain or a “stretching” sensation.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
There are two main causes of tight hamstrings: shortened muscles or overuse. Various things can cause either one of these to happen to you.
If you spend a lot of time stationary with your legs bent or tucked underneath you, your hamstring muscles can shorten. This means the muscle fibers tighten to help keep the muscle in the shortened position.
So when you extend your leg again after a period of keeping the muscle shortened, you may feel discomfort and even pain. This is even considered an actual syndrome, called short hamstring syndrome (SHS).
Some common causes of this problem include spending long hours behind a desk, spending a lot of time in the car, or not moving enough during your day.
However, tight hamstrings can also be caused by overuse. In most cases, this comes down to the other surrounding muscles not doing their job properly—specifically, the hip flexors.
When the hip flexors aren’t stabilizing the hip joint effectively, it over-recruits the hamstring muscles to perform a stabilizing function. This can easily lead to overuse, leading to stiffness and soreness in the muscles as they don’t get enough time to rest between use.
In these cases, your hamstring tightness is generally caused by exercising a lot but not spending time strengthening those hip flexors and other stabilizing muscles. It can be alleviated by working on the stabilizing muscles to take some strain off the hamstrings.
It’s also worth noting that dehydration can worsen hamstring tightness, so stay hydrated. Both during your run and during everyday life!
Can You Run With Tight Hamstrings?
You can run with tight hamstrings but do so with care. Depending on how tight they are, they may or may not want to run.
If your hamstring tightness causes pain when running or doing everyday tasks, you should treat it before considering running again.
However, if you warm up effectively with a focus on your hamstrings and can run without any pain or restriction to your movement, then you should be able to run without a problem.
How Do Tight Hamstrings Affect Your Running?
Mildly tight hamstrings—think DOMS—can actually be eased up by running. However, when tight hamstrings start to affect your range of motion, your running can be negatively affected.
If your hamstrings don’t loosen up nicely when you warm up, you’re putting yourself at risk of developing a muscle strain, a painful overuse injury that can sideline you for some time. This means that even if you do run, you’re more likely to cause lasting damage.
But another problem that’s just as worrying is the potential for your form to be affected. Tighter hamstrings reduce hip flexion, which causes your stride length to decrease.
While this might seem good in that your cadence will improve, “forced” shortening of your stride can instead place strain on other muscles.
Also, tight hamstrings can affect other areas of the body. One, they can pull the pelvis out of alignment, causing your form to suffer and your lower back to become strained.
Two, they can affect the knee’s range of motion, leading to pain and inflammation as the quadriceps pull harder on the joint to gain more movement.
Ultimately, this affects your running in two ways. It makes your running less efficient, so you’ll struggle to progress, making you more prone to injury, which can have disastrous effects and even stop you from running altogether.
Are Your Tight Hamstrings a Hamstring Injury?
How do you know when you just have a case of tight hamstrings or when you’re dealing with a hamstring injury? Keep in mind that hamstring tightness can occur in only one leg, so unilateral pain isn’t the best way to diagnose an injury.
The first sign that you’ve injured your hamstring is a sudden sharp pain, usually while busy with an exercise or activity.
In some cases, the pain may be so severe that it stops you from continuing. In other cases, it might ease up almost immediately, but a dull ache will remain. Either way, it’s best to stop and rest the hamstring—continuing may put you at risk of worse injury.
There are three grades of a hamstring strain. Each one includes tightness in the hamstring muscles while stretching, but each one has other symptoms that come with it.
- Grade 1 (muscle pull): Inability to fully straighten your leg, difficulty bearing weight on the affected leg.
- Grade 2 (partial muscle tear): Pain in the hamstring when bending the knee, weakness in the muscles, limping.
- Grade 3 (muscle fiber tear/rupture): Inability to straighten your leg more than about 30 degrees, pain when walking, swelling, and bruising around the hamstrings.
If you experience any of these signs and hamstring tightness, you should stop running immediately and seek medical attention.
How Do You Treat a Hamstring Strain?
Grade 3 stains will need to be seen by a medical professional who will assess the best treatment. Mild to moderate hamstring strains—grade 1 to 2—can be treated at home, with:
- Rest: Rest your leg for 48 to 72 hours.
- Ice: 10 minutes of icing every 2 hours at the most.
- Compression: Use a bandage or thigh wrap for compression to keep blood circulating in the hamstrings.
- Elevation: Keep your leg elevated to help drain fluid and reduce swelling.
- Massage: Should be applied only after 3 days of RICE treatment (continue to ice).
- Stretch Other Muscles: Loosening up the quads and hip flexors will take the strain off the hamstrings.
- Sport-Specific Movement: Start this about a week after your strain. Low-intensity interval runs are a good way to begin. Start light and increase slowly throughout the week. You should be able to get back to a normal level of running from week 3—one week of rest and one week of light training.
How to Treat Tight Hamstrings
If your hamstrings are tight and you’re confident you don’t have an injury, stretching them is a good way to alleviate that tightness.
However, it’s important that you also consider “treating” the other muscles around the hamstrings that are likely to contribute to hamstring tightness in the first place.
This means performing stretches to loosen up tight hip flexors and quads and strengthening these muscles and your hamstrings. Focusing only on the hamstrings might reduce the tightness, but it might not solve the problem!
Here are some ways to treat tight hamstrings so you can get back to exercising with less stiffness and discomfort.
Stretches to Loosen Tight Hamstrings
Daily stretching is an excellent way not only to alleviate tightness that’s already there but to prevent it from setting in in the first place.
If you’ve made sure your hamstring stiffness is not an injury, try some of these stretches to ease up the tightness.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretches
If you’re wondering which type of stretching is best—static or dynamic—it’s all about the timing. Static stretches are best performed when the muscles are already warm, so after a workout is great.
Dynamic stretches include controlled movement to warm the muscles up and prepare it for more movement. They’re the stretches you do before your workout to prime the muscle for action.
To stretch tight hamstrings, you should perform dynamic stretches, which will warm those muscles and get the blood flowing, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the area to help reduce pain.
It’s worth noting that any static stretch can be turned into a dynamic stretch by moving in and out of the stretch for 60 to 90 seconds in total, rather than holding it for an extended time.
If you feel pain or strange sensations in your hamstring or around your leg or hip when doing these stretches, stop and contact a healthcare provider to assess your muscle.
Lying Hamstring Stretch
Begin this stretch by lying on a flat ground surface with your feet flat on the floor. Slowly lift your right knee to your chest while keeping your left foot firmly on the ground.
Extend your leg slowly, extending the hamstring but not fully straightening the leg. Your knee should remain slightly bent at all times. Also, don’t push yourself past what your hamstring can handle at this point.
Hold it for 5 seconds or so at its most stretched position, and then slowly return your leg to its position by your chest. Repeat the gentle extension 3 times in “dynamic stretch” format.
Switch legs and do the same with your opposite leg unless you have no tightness in that hamstring. Repeat this dynamic stretch 3 times.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
Start this stretch seated on the floor in a butterfly position—with the heels of your feet touching each other and your feet pulled in as close to your tailbone as possible.
Extend one leg. Hinge at the waist and lean forward over the extended leg. You will feel a deep stretch in the hamstring—don’t force the stretch further than is comfortable.
Take care to keep your back as straight as possible during this movement. Arching your back can cause injury.
Hold for 5 seconds and then return to an upright position. Almost immediately, go back into the stretch. Repeat this a few times before switching legs.
Hamstring Stretch With a Towel
You’ll start this stretch lying on your back on the floor. With a towel, belt, or strap, loop around one foot and pull it gently until your leg lifts upwards.
Your knee should stay as straight as possible. The other leg should stay down, flat on the floor.
Lift your leg this way until you feel the stretch at the back of your thigh. You might also feel your calf stretching. Hold it for 5 seconds, and then lower your leg.
Almost immediately bring it back up again, but make sure you aren’t going too fast—the motion should be gentle. Repeat 3 to 5 times on each leg.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
Stand in front of a slightly raised surface, like a step. Place one heel on the raised surface, keeping your leg as straight as possible. Keep your spine as straight as possible, hinge at the hips, and lean forward without bending the knee.
Lean until you can feel the stretch in your hamstring. Hold for 5 seconds and then come back up again, maintaining a controlled movement. Almost immediately, go back into a second stretch. Do 3 to 5 in one “dynamic stretch”.
Switch legs and repeat. You can do 3 to 5 stretches on each side.
Foam rolling is a great way to loosen up tight muscles and get blood flowing in the region. Begin by sitting on the floor—or a yoga mat—with the foam roller underneath one thigh.
Place your hands on the ground behind your body. Lift yourself up and, with some of your body weight on the foam roller, push yourself forward so your hamstring “rolls” over the foam roller.
Keep your abs tight, and make sure your back stays straight. Roll up and down the full length of your thigh for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Switch legs and repeat.
Massage the Hamstrings
Foam rolling is a form of massage that you can do if you don’t have a partner to help you. Alternatively, you can apply any massage technique to your hamstring as long as you can reach them.
It’s a good idea to warm up a little before massaging. Doing 5 minutes of light cardio will get the blood flowing and prepare the muscles to be massaged.
The easiest way to do self-massage is to sit on the edge of a chair where you can reach your hamstrings. Begin by using light, slow, long strokes the length of your hamstring. You should use some kind of lotion to make each stroke easier.
Once your muscles feel warm, knead across your hamstrings from side to side, using medium pressure. Focus on any area where you feel more pain.
Finish with light kneading across the length of the hamstring. You only need to do this for 5 to 10 minutes in total.
Heat and Cold Therapy
Icing your hamstrings helps reduce swelling, so this is a good option if they feel very inflamed. But in most cases, heat is the better option for general hamstring tightness, while cold is recommended within the first 72 hours of an injury.
Use a heat pack wrapped in a towel and place it on your hamstring for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. You can reapply the heat every 2 hours or so.
How to Prevent Tight Hamstrings
Preventing tight hamstrings is better than treating them! Here’s how to stop tight hamstrings from becoming a problem.
If your tight hamstrings are caused by shortening of the muscle due to sitting too often, then set some reminders on your phone to get up and stretch them out every so often.
Just a short stretch every 30 minutes will help prevent those muscles from settling into a shortened position.
Gradually Increase Your Intensity and Mileage
If your hamstring stiffness is caused by overuse, the best way to prevent it is to gradually increase your mileage and intensity.
Don’t be tempted to push ahead too quickly with your training. Move slowly but steadily, and try to increase by no more than 5 percent per week. For example, if you run 10 miles this week, then run 10 ½ miles next week, and so on.
Warm Up and Cool Down
Warming up is crucial for the health of your muscles. Just 5 minutes of walking before your run will start the blood flowing and warm the hamstring muscles, so you’ll be much less at risk of overdoing it.
Don’t forget to cool down as well. Another 5 minute walk will give the muscles time to flush out lactic acid and relax nicely.
Strengthen the Hamstrings
We highly recommend including strength training in your weekly routine. At least one day should focus on legs, and you should choose exercises to strengthen the hamstrings, specifically:
- Romanian deadlifts
- Hamstring curls
- Split squats
- Hip thrusts
Make sure you do them with proper form and keep your core tight throughout each movement. Building strength in these muscles will reduce the chance of injury.
Include Cross-Training Into Your Routine
Cross-training helps you to maintain your fitness levels without placing too much load on your “running muscles”. Choose something like swimming, jumping rope, or rowing to get an amazing workout without adding strain to the hamstring muscles.
Evaluate Your Running Form
It’s a good idea to check your running form every few weeks or months because it can be hard to notice if you’re losing it.
Make sure your front foot is landing underneath your pelvis, keeping your core tight, your torso staying upright, and you’re swinging your arms just the right amount.
You can use a running form app to test your form by yourself if you don’t have a running coach.
Make Sure to Drink Plenty of Fluids
Dehydration can make hamstring stiffness worse, so staying hydrated throughout your day is important. Don’t forget to drink even when you aren’t running! You may want to set reminders throughout the day to take a drink so you don’t forget.
Rest and Recovery
Give your hamstrings the time they need to recover between exercise sessions. Evaluating your cross-training is a good idea and seeing if you’re placing too much load on your hamstrings even when you aren’t running.
Ensure they have enough time to rest and start using recovery tools like foam rolling, compression gear, and heat therapy.