Un-kink a Cranky Hamstring
Tiredof that constant nagging in your hamstring? At some point in their athletic careers most triathletes will experience a tight hamstring while running or cycling, impeding movement. A tight muscle typically means it lacks range of motion. Even without a loss of mobility athletes often complain of a feeling of restriction. Stretching or massage is often the first line of treatment. While helpful, they tend to be band aids and don’t address the root of the muscle limitations. Below are some of the most common causes of tight hamstrings in multisport athletes along with some highly effective treatments.
1. Neural Tightness
The sciatic nerve runs underneath your hamstrings. It connects your brain to your spinal cord to your foot. Neural tension or irritation can interfere with the brain’s ability to accurately interpret what’s being conveyed by the hamstring – signalling restriction even if there is none. Nerve f lossing helps ease this tension and diminish sensitivity by pulling the nerve away from adhesions or entrapments. This is done by pulling the nerve from one end while keeping the other end relaxed. The photos here demonstrate a simple nerve f lossing exercise. Begin by sitting in a chair. With your back arched, straighten your leg and pull your foot upwards. Straightening the leg essentially pulls the nerve downward to the foot ( gliding the nerve under the hamstrings) while arching the back and neck “loosens” the nerve from up top. This is followed by f lexing the neck and back ( pulling the nerve upwards) while you bend your knee (slackening the nerve from below). Perform these f lossing movements 10 to 20 times several times throughout the day.
2. Weakness or Pain
Running and cycling are hip dominant exercises. Any weakness in the back, glutes or hamstrings can cause a sense of tightness in the hamstrings with no actual change in mobility. Both the perception of tightness or actual tightness is a defensive response to pain, or simply the brain’s insistence that something is not right. Any of those muscles can be beat up or tired and just not feel ready to respond to the loads you wish to subject them to. You need to prepare those muscles and get them confident again. This form of tightness responds well to strength training. Load the hamstrings and hips. The body adapts with time and the sense of tightness or insecurity slowly diminishes. Strength training the hips through a full range of motion (e. g. deadlifts, resisted hip extension against cables) can even help increase range of motion. Contrary to popular belief, strength training increases mobility and allows athletes to own new ranges of motion. It allows the brain’s defensive tightness mechanism to relax. As an added benefit, strength training makes you mechanically more efficient and improves performance times.
3. Low Back Pain
The crankiness or tightness felt in the hamstrings can be a problem generated from any number of structures in the spine. Pain or discomfort can be referred from the back to the hips and down the legs. Don’t ignore this area and seek the advice of a health care professional.
Stretching has been said to decrease power, mechanical efficiency and performance. This, however, is a gross generalization. The majority of studies show that performance decreases in the short term only five per cent (not a big deal for the average athlete on an average training day) and only when stretches are held for prolonged periods greater than 60 or 90 seconds. Remember, these are also just acute changes in performance. There is no research showing that stretching changes performance in the long term. Holding gentle stretches 15 to 30 seconds as most athletes do, will not harm your performance in the short or long term.
One modification to the typical hamstring stretch is to perform the stretch with the knee slightly bent and the back completely straight. Elevate your foot on a chair and simply bring your chest closer to your knee by tilting forward at the hips. Keeping the knee bent and only tilting your pelvis forward puts the stretch on the hamstrings rather than the sciatic nerve. You’ll feel a greater stretch in the muscle belly instead of behind the knee where most people feel a traditional hamstring stretch.
Keep f lossing, load and stay loose. Greg Lehman is a physiotherapist, running injury therapist and chiropractor at the Urban Athlete and at Medcan in Toronto. Follow him at thebodymechanic.ca.