Why Stretching Your Hamstrings Might Be a Waste of Time

hamstring stretches for runnersI’m constantly asked about two things.

One is ITB problems (if you’re interested, check out How to Give Your ITB Some TLC).

Th second is hamstrings stretches for runners.

Unfortunately there is no magic pill for either. Sorry 🙂

That distinctive tightness in the back of your upper leg has plagued almost every runner or cyclist at one time or another.

Sometimes it’s a general sense of tightness and other times – and in my case – it was a localised and distinct niggle that eventually became a tear.

Sitting, bending over, walking up stairs or running for the bus all remind you of the problem.

And they can take a long freaking time to heal, putting you out of action for weeks or months on end.

The temptation of course is to stretch.

It feels tight after all.

Stretching them feels good so you google ‘hamstring stretches for runners’ and ask your training buddies how to stretch them. Because no matter how much you stretch them, they still feel tight!

But it’s important to realise that just because your hamstrings feel tight doesn’t mean they need stretching.

In fact, stretching can often make it worse (not better) as I found out.

Stretching your hamstrings can make it worse

Always keep in mind that discomfort/pain/injury is only a symptom of the problem but is not always the source of it.

There are many reasons why your hamstrings can feel tight. And my role here is not to diagnose yours.

But there’s one cause of tight hamstrings that I see in the majority of runners and cyclists I’ve worked with –

Your quads are too tight.

Yes, that’s right! Your quads (thighs) are too tight which is causing the hamstring problem.

But how do I know if my quads are too tight? This is the basic framework that I think about when my clients mention hamstring pain ~

1. How is your hamstring flexibility?

To test this, I get my clients to do a simple single leg hamstring flexibility test.

Notice the difference one leg to the other

Notice the difference one leg to the other

Here, I’m looking primarily for symmetry. Do they have the same approximate flexibility in both legs?

How much flexibility they have – how high they can lift a leg – is a factor but my primary concern is whether they are symmetrical. If not, there is an imbalance needs to be rectified.

2. Not symmetrical? Stretch the tighter leg more 

That might seem obvious.

But I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched a client who is well aware of an imbalance on purpose stretch their stronger side as much as they stretch their weaker side.

That’s never going to fix an imbalance. You might improve the flexibility in the ‘tighter’ side but the difference between both legs will remain the same!

3. Stretch & roll your quads!

Regardless of whether you are symmetrical or not. And here’s why.

Imagine your hips are a flat circular disc. Your quads (thighs) attach at the front of the disc and your hamstrings at the back.

If your quads are tight, they pull down on the front of the disc (your hips). As the front of the disc is pulled down, the back of the disc (and your hamstrings) are pulled up or are raised higher, lengthening them and giving you the sensation they are tight.

So the reason they feel tight is often because they are already overstretched. And as I’m sure you can imagine, the last thing they need or want is to be stretched further!

This is why for many people stretching your tight hamstrings rarely reduces the sensation of tightness. This is really common in triathletes, cyclists and runners who tend to be ‘quad-dominant’ (so you use your quads more than you use the back of your legs).

So stretch & foam rolls your quads (thighs) instead.

Try it for yourself; you’ll probably also find that if one hamstring is tighter, the same quad (thigh) is likely to be the tighter of the two. Think back to the disc; as one side is pulled down, the other side is pulled up.

So releasing the pressure on your quads will automatically take pressure off your hamstrings without you having to do anything specifically for your hamstrings.

Of course there are some people with postural issues who shouldn’t adopt this tack. Which is why it’s important to have your body assessed by a physio or coach with experience in this.

4. Strengthen your hamstrings.

Yes, those muscles in the back of your legs. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t crucial to your sport.

Most of us – myself included – who are “quad dominant” are stronger + tighter in our quads (thighs) and weaker in your hamstrings and glutes (butt).

So strengthening this region is vital if you are to sort out your imbalances. Here are two hamstring exercises to help you do that.

Fix your hamstrings once and for all!

 

There are a number of other factors and things you can work on to address hamstring issues but this is a perfect place for you to start.

In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

1/. Have you been plagued by hamstring problems before?

2/. Which of these steps are you going to commit to doing today? When you do, make sure you come back and report your findings with us.