Physiotherapist BSc (Hons) MSc Sport & Exercise Medicine MCSP
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles that originate from the ischial tuberosity, the bony area that you sit on. They run down the back of the thigh and attach just below the knee joint. Their main roles are to bend the knee, and move the hip backwards. In running, the hamstrings have another important job: to prevent the knee from over-straightening.
Are runners prone to hamstring injuries?
Hamstring strains are a common problem amongst sprinters, accounting for up to 50% of all their injuries. This is because the hamstrings have to work at a high speed and in a stretched position. Some research suggests that people who have strong quadriceps at the front of their thighs, but weak hamstrings, are more prone to strains. This could be because the hamstrings have to work so much harder to counterbalance the quadriceps when running fast.
Endurance runners are less likely to suffer from hamstring strains. However, if there is poor movement control around the pelvis and core, you can sometimes get irritation to the areas where the hamstrings attach, either up in the buttock or down by the knee. Weak hamstrings can also affect the control of movement of the knee, which can contribute to injuries such as patella tracking problems, or ilio-tibial band friction syndrome (ITBFS).
Athletes who have less hamstring strength in one leg compared to the other are more likely to suffer from hamstring related injury. This can be a problem for people who have had knee surgery; if the post-surgery physiotherapy rehabilitation has not been completed to a high enough level for the hamstrings to cope with the demands of running.
Unfortunately, age can play a factor, with older athletes more likely to suffer from hamstring strains and muscular injuries. However, problems are also more likely to occur after an inadequate warm up or towards the end of a running session when muscles are more fatigued.
Tips for preventing hamstring related injury
- Always warm up before any running session by starting slowly, getting the heart rate up and the blood pumping, and then doing a few minutes of dynamic stretching such as leg swings, kicks and lunges to get the muscles prepared for action.
- Endurance running works your quadriceps more than your hamstrings, which can create a strength imbalance. So to avoid pulling a hamstring at an interval training session, work through some strengthening exercises such as Romanian Dead Lifts (RDL), Bridging or Nordic Hamstring exercises. Beware; these exercises can injure your lower back if done incorrectly, so always get a Sports Physiotherapist or a qualified strength and conditioning specialist to check your technique before you do these by yourself.
- Strong gluteal muscles can take the load off the hamstrings so exercises to strengthen these can help. Again, a qualified fitness professional can show you the type of exercises to do.
- Work on core stability and balance, because this can improve the control of movement around the pelvis, making your running more efficient.
- If your day job involves sitting for long periods of time e.g. at a desk or in a car, your hamstrings can gradually become short and tight. Therefore, gently stretching out the hamstrings for 30 seconds or longer each day can help. There are mixed views in the current research as to whether very good hamstring flexibility reduces the risk of injury, but it is generally accepted that people with tight muscles are more likely to strain them. If you have good hamstring length, you should be able to sit on the floor with your bottom all the way back against a wall with your knees straight.
Despite all this, the biggest risk factor for hamstring injury is having had a previous hamstring injury. So if this is you, then you will need to address all the factors above to reduce the risk of it happening again.