by Christine Felstead
Have you ever experienced shooting sharp pain up the back of your thigh, into the sitting bone while walking, running or sitting? If so, you may be surprised to discover that this may be attributed to overly tight hamstrings. Having worked with hundreds of runners in the past year, hamstrings are without a doubt the cause of most runners’ ailments. Let’s examine why this is so.
Hamstrings include three muscles of the posterior thigh. They contain a high portion of tendonous fiber which is more resistant to stretching than muscle tissue. See for yourself: while sitting with legs at 90 degrees, lift toes and feel tendons at back of knee. The hamstrings cross both the hip and knee joint and they attach to the sitting bones of the pelvis. If the hamstrings are too tight, they pull the pelvis down, into what is known as a posterior tilt. Primarily the hamstrings work to extend the thigh (while standing with straight legs, lift one foot and extend leg back) and to flex the knee (while standing lift foot, bend knee and take foot towards backside).
Overly tight hamstrings can affect knees, hips and lower back. A major cause of tight muscles is repeated use. Overlay the leg movements described above on a running stride, assess how many times you repeat this movement in a typical run and you will quickly see why hamstrings are prone to tightening and overuse injury. Furthermore, hamstrings are used in everyday activities such as walking. Unless you purposely take the time to ‘stretch’ the hamstrings, they will continue to tighten.
The ubiquitous test for assessing hamstring length that we’ve all done since we were children is to bend forward and try to touch our toes (without bending the knees). Actually, this continues to be a pretty good test, so go ahead and try it. Now, if your fingers only reached your thighs, don’t admonish yourself. You need to realize that not all hamstrings were created equal. I have seen long term runners that don’t stretch regularly and yet are able to touch their toes easily while I’ve seen young children that are barely able to touch their knees. Nonetheless, a regimen of regular and targeted stretching will help lengthen even the shortest hamstrings.
If your hamstrings are tight, be careful with either standing or sitting forward bends. As I mentioned, tight hamstrings pull the pelvis down. In forward bending, the aim is to rotate the pelvis over the thighs at the hip joint, maintaining a long spine with no rounding. The pull of tight hamstrings inhibits this forward movement of the pelvis. In fact, the pelvis is being pulled backward. While the pelvis is pulled backward, and you bend forward, you exert pressure on the lumbar spine and run the risk of straining the lower back, particularly the discs. To stay safe, bend forward from the hips and only go as far as you are able to with a straight spine. Concentrate on moving the pelvis forward, not your head. Alternatively, get some assistance from an experienced instructor or replace forward bends with a safer stretch (such as the one described below) until your hamstrings are a little longer.
From my experience, the safest and very effective hamstring stretch is the Supine Hand-to-Foot Pose (Supta Padangusthasana). Self massage can also bring some relief to tight hamstrings. While overly tight hamstrings typically affect knees, hips or lower back, the tightest part is often the belly of the muscle. For immediate relief, rub the hamstrings with the hands (to create some heat) and then press the fingertips along the centre of the muscle. If you’ve sustained a hamstring injury, you can also help break up the scar tissue at the injured area by placing a small ball under the site and rolling on it.
In conclusion, if you are experiencing any of the ailments I’ve mentioned, or just want to keep your hamstrings happy, give yourself a month of regular and dedicated hamstring stretching. Observe the changes in your body and keep yourself healthy and on the road!
Supine Hand-to-Foot Pose
(Supta Padangusthasana)(Beginner/tight hamstrings Variation)
Lie on your back, feet together, legs fully extended, arms by your side. If your chin is higher than your forehead, place a folded blanket under your head. Bend your L, foot on floor. Bend R knee towards your chest and wrap a belt (sock, towel) around the ball of your foot. Raise the leg as far as you are able, keeping it straight. Lengthen the back of the leg from the sitting bone to the heel, and then press upwards through the big toe joint. Relax the shoulders, broadening through the collarbones and relax the jaw and neck. Hold for up to 3 minutes while taking long, relaxed inhales and exhales. Repeat on the other side.
(Intermediate/longer hamstrings variation)
Lie on your back, feet together, legs fully extended, arms by your side. If your chin is higher than your forehead, place a folded blanket under your head. Bend your R knee towards your chest and wrap a belt (sock, towel) around the ball of your foot. Raise the leg as far as you are able, keeping it straight. Lengthen the back of the leg from the sitting bone to the heel, and then press upwards through the big toe joint. Keep your L leg straight, pressing into the floor and foot flexed. Relax the shoulders, broadening through the collarbones and relax the jaw and neck. Hold for up to 3 minutes while taking long, relaxed inhales and exhales. Repeat on the other side.