Hamstrings are kind of cool. They’re also fickle. But one must indulge them, because this muscle group is too important to not pamper. Hamstrings help in flexing and stabilising the knee and they help the hip extend. Hamstrings also control lower leg movement through any running stride or motion, which includes the rotation of the leg. They help you take off when you jump, they help you land, and they help you stop.
Since they work so hard, it’s also no secret that hamstrings are one of the most common muscle groups to get stiff, tight, and uneasy. Unhealthy hamstrings are bad, and will make life very difficult, irrespective of whether you workout or not. They will be primed for injury if you don’t keep them mobile and strong. And of course, if you don’t stretch them. But apart from all the incredible qualities they have, hamstrings are also deceptive. A lot of times we think we’re stretching them, when in fact we may not be.
There are a few common hamstring stretching techniques—the first among them being the forward bend, or toe-touch. In a bid to reach the toes (it is okay if you can’t reach your toes in a forward bend), people let go of or release the entire back of the leg, which doesn’t actually stretch the hamstrings, but slackens the lower back. There are better ways to stretch them, but if you still want to try this, then make sure you engage the muscles around your knees when you bend down. This brings the quads into action, which means the upper leg is now engaged, and the stretch will be in the right areas.
The other common mistake is flexing the toes towards yourself in a bid to reach them while doing a sitting stretch. Instead, pull the entire foot towards yourself and not just the toes. A quick technique to achieve this is to make sure that your foot is flat when you pull it towards yourself. Using a band or a towel wrapped around the sole is a great way to aid this without bending forward excessively.
These are the basics, and you might be surprised to know that there are even easier hamstring stretches that work better. It’s not uncommon to see people place their heel on a bench (indoor or outdoor), lock their knee out, and then bend the lower back forward in that position. What follows is a slight burning sensation at the back of the leg which might masquerade itself as a stretch but is in fact just tension on the sciatic nerve. Instead, do what running coach James Dunne does in the video above, which is a proper stretch felt in “the belly of the muscle.” And it doesn’t even involve locking out the knee.
Physiotherapist Jared Beckstrand, who has more than a million subscribers on his YouTube channel Tone and Tighten, has an easy hamstring stretching routine which can be done with a band or a towel. His warning of avoiding any hamstring stretch that is felt in the back of the knee goes hand in hand with Dunne’s. The video above also includes a quick foam rolling routine which will help undo the tight knots in the back of your leg.
Now it’s okay to wonder why so much care must be taken with stretching these particular muscles. But one can never be careful enough with them. “Hamstring strain injury (HSI) is the most common non-contact injury representing 37% of all muscle traumas in professional sport,” says an article in Frontiers In Physiology, titled Why Is Hamstring Strain Injury So Common In Sport Despite Numerous Prevention Methods? Are There Any Missing Pieces To This Puzzle? In fact, the entire muscle group has been a puzzle among sports scientists, and even the best athletes, with the best care, might suddenly painfully pull-up mid-run due to an injury when they least saw it coming.
But there is some clarity on fixing and making sure recurrence is not immediate. “The treatment is conservative, with the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in the acute phase followed by a muscle rehabilitation program… Prevention programs based on eccentric strengthening of the muscles have been indicated both to prevent the initial injury as well as preventing recurrence,” says a paper published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Which brings us to the overall care of these muscles, which goes beyond just stretching them. Ideally your leg day must involve some eccentric hamstring work which challenges the muscles. Romanian deadlifts, hamstring curls, and Nordic hamstring raises (in the video above) are good for this. Foam-rolling and releasing hamstrings are very important, and lastly, fixing any muscular imbalances will help in one side of your hamstrings (usually the dominant foot) not being overused than the other.
Hamstrings are notorious for giving trouble, but they’re also one of the most important muscles to operate in daily life, especially due to their relationship with the hips and knees. But they tend to operate on their own whims and their own rules. That doesn’t mean you let them. Train them. Take care of them. And they might just thank you with that extra burst of speed when you’re running the next time.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.