Anyone who has run for any duration of time knows that you can come back after a run and deal with aches and pains. One of these pains can come from your hamstrings, which we’ll cover in this article.
If you’re dealing with hamstring soreness or injuries, this article is for you. We will discuss not only how to deal with hamstring pain if you’re dealing with it now but also what to do differently in the future.
What are Tight Hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles—semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris—that lie at the back of your thigh. The hamstrings work to help you extend your leg and bend your knee.
Obviously, when they are tight that means that it’s not as smooth to bend your knee or extend your leg. If you feel tightness on the back of your thigh, then it’s probably your hamstrings.
What is the Cause of Tight Hamstrings?
Tight hamstrings can occur for a variety of reasons. One is actually poor posture because you’re putting stress on your body by not standing up straight and using the muscles as they were intended to be used.
Sports that involve a lot of sprinting or a stop-and-start movement like soccer or tennis may also cause tightness, but inactivity like sitting for long hours (think, an airplane ride) can also lead to tightness.
Often tight hamstrings are caused by weak and inflexible hips, hip flexors, and core muscles. Tightness can increase the chance of injury, which, in this case, is a strain or tearing. Therefore, it is important to strengthen and stretch all of these muscles.
How Do I Know If I Have Tight Hamstrings?
The most common test is to either stand or sit with your legs straight and try to reach your toes with your hands. If you are unable to do so or if you can only hold the position for less than 10 seconds and it’s a struggle the whole time, your hamstrings are tight.
What is the Difference Between Tightness and Injury?
If your hamstrings simply feel sore and tight, then you are likely just dealing with the common tightness. However, if the pain comes up, you might have torn or strained a muscle. While it’s fine to stretch for tightness, you don’t want to stretch if it’s an injury.
Stretching when you might have a torn or strained muscle may actually worsen the situation. If the pain stays within 2-3 days, you should see a doctor. There is a good chance that he or she will prescribe an MRI scan to see what’s going on.
What are the Symptoms of an Injury?
If you’re still not sure if you’re dealing with tightness or an injury, you’ll want to see if you have any symptoms of an injury. If you feel a sudden, sharp pain or pain after a few seconds of stretching, it’s probably an injury. It’s a step above just feeling slightly uncomfortable.
If you have a popping or tearing sensation or are dealing with swelling and tenderness or bruising and discoloration, you probably have an injury and not merely tight hamstrings. If the discomfort is low, then it’s probably just tightness.
Finally, if you have very weak hamstrings even after several strength sessions, then it’s probably an injury, and you’ll want to see a doctor.
Can You Treat a Mild Strain Yourself?
The short answer is yes, if it is really a mild strain. To determine this, you need to walk slowly and see how you feel. If you can do so without pain, then you’re dealing with a mild strain that you can treat at home.
You’ll want to use the RICE (rest, ice, compress, and elevate) method and pain relievers if you’re dealing with some pain although not when walking slowly. Hopefully, things will start to get better quickly when you take time to recover.
However, if the pain does not decrease over a few days, you might be dealing with a severe strain or tear. In that case, you’ll need to see a doctor because you cannot treat those at home.
How Do I Treat Tight Hamstrings?
If you’re currently dealing with tight hamstrings, then obviously you’ll want to get that fixed. You should try some of these suggestions.
The first step is to stretch. Make sure that it’s only slightly uncomfortable when you’re stretching and do it every day. Your muscles will gradually loosen up and soon what was challenging to do for 10 seconds will be a breeze to do for a minute.
Use a Foam Roller
Another great way to lengthen the muscle is to use a foam roller or other massager. You’ll want to go easy at the beginning and go deeper once you are comfortable. You’ll want to start with a medium foam density and later move on to a harder one.
If you can afford a massage therapist, that’s another great way to treat tight hamstrings or to keep them loose. Even if it’s only once or twice a year, it might be a good idea to see a massage therapist after a big race as a gift to yourself.
Add Strength Exercises
One potential cause of tight hamstrings is that your muscles are weak, so you need to strengthen them. But it’s important not to overdo it. Start with a low intensity and the easiest versions to rebuild strength carefully and gradually.
Try Physical Therapy
If your hamstrings are chronically tight or strained over many months or years of intense activity or even inactivity, you might want to try physical therapy. Talk to your friends and family to see if they can refer you to a good physical therapist.
Think About Heat Therapy
Finally, there’s nothing like heat therapy. Using a sauna, steam, hot tub, or another heat device can also help your muscles to relax and reduce tension in that area. If you don’t get tight hamstrings very often, you might just need to take a hot shower when you do!
How Do I Prevent Tight Hamstrings?
The best thing you can do is to increase the range of motion of your hamstrings as well as the strength level of your hamstrings. This will lower the risk of tightness. You can do this in a variety of ways.
First, you need to spend time before and after your runs warming up. A minimum of 10 minutes of walking, light jogging, and/or easy calisthenics and dynamic stretching help to activate all big muscle groups.
Then it’s not as big of a shock when you start running. You’ll particularly want to focus on stretching your hamstrings before and after any activity if you tend to get tightness. Stretching after is especially important.
Strengthen Those Hamstrings
You’ll also want to spend time strengthening your hamstrings, hips, hip flexors, and core muscles with a nice range of exercises. Balance exercises are particularly helpful. You might want to try using a pillar, bosu-ball, or other unstable object that will allow you to practice balance.
Train Your Whole Body
Even if you don’t have to train your entire body to participate in the sport of your choice (likely running for most readers), you’ll want to have a more comprehensive view to avoid tight hamstrings.
Include a mixture of strength and cardio and work on keeping your body balanced. Remember that most muscles and joints are connected with each other; think reflex zone foot massage.
This step is key to avoid more hamstring tightness, and there are so many different hamstring stretches you can try. Start with the easiest one (often touching your toes) and try to hold it for 15-30 seconds.
Increase the time once you get better and more comfortable. Once you master the easier stretches, you can move on to the intermediate and later advanced positions like crossing one foot over the other and stretching.
Adapt Your Intensity
Finally, you’ll want to adapt your intensity. If you haven’t exercised or participated in a sport for a while, you will need to increase the time and intensity you’re spending on the sport slowly. Try to set up your sessions regularly to avoid large gaps of no exercise.
Remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Slowly work yourself up to the level you want to be at. Don’t jump in too quickly. You’ll put yourself at risk for injuries, and you’re also more likely to burn out.
While tight hamstrings are always annoying, the good news is that they are typically very easy to treat. Just make sure that after you recover you’re strengthening and stretching those muscles so that it doesn’t happen again.
And remember that if it’s a sharp pain, it’s probably an injury, so go and see a doctor rather than try to treat things at home.