Squat More, Stretch Smart for Healthy Hammies
Recovering from an overuse injury can feel like a never-ending journey filled with peaks of hope and valleys of frustration. By their very nature, over-use injuries result from too much of a good thing. Maybe you've just started running, cycling, or a new sport and you feel AMAZING from the strength and stamina that your body is showing you. You want MORE exercise-induced endorphins, MORE pride in yourself for slashing your beginner goals, MORE results by the way of improved health. Eventually, more and more becomes too much for the body to handle and something has to give and it's generally the weakest link.
Let's continue with the scenario of the beginner runner - plain and simple, from a muscular stand point running builds strong quads fast. If all you are doing for exercise is running, for a little while you are going to feel great however if you aren't putting in the time to cross train and specifically strengthen the other lower extremity musculature beyond the quads you are going to become out of balance. I completely believe that muscular imbalance is the number one greatest cause of orthopedic injuries. Our muscles are meant to work intricately in support and opposition of each other and when one muscle group becomes disproportionately stronger than it's counterpart injury is likely to occur. The quads, along with the hip flexors (iliopsoas) are considered anterior chain muscles and they attach to the anterior surfaces of the pelvis. The counter of anterior is posterior, right? Our posterior chain muscles of the hips are the hamstrings and glutes, attaching on the posterior surfaces of the pelvis and the sits bones (ischia). Unless you are putting in the time post-run for a legit stretch session, the quads are going to also become tighter as they become stronger, placing extra stress on the hamstrings to keep the pelvis stable despite the strong pull from the anterior chain. Basically - if you don't train your hamstrings and glutes for strength they are going to become over-used, irritated and injured. The acute injury care of RICE (rest/ice/compression/elevation) and stretching the hamstrings may help to relieve the initial pain of a hamstring injury, however without a proper and thorough rehab the issue is going to come right back once activity and exercise resume.
This has all been the long way of me saying that we must always look deeper than the quick fix of single body part being the cause of the dysfunction. This concept did not come naturally to me when I was first practicing as a physical therapist. It's easy to fall into the trap of diagnosing someone with "tight hamstrings" and then only work on RICE, range of motion and stretching of the hamstrings. Again, this will help in the short term but is not a long term solution. Stretching the hamstrings alone isn't going to solve a thing seeing that the hamstrings are already over-stretched from the pull of the strong and tight opposing quadriceps. We have to think deeper to the next step which is to not only stretch the hamstrings but also strengthen them so they can actually stand a chance at working with the glutes to balance out with the quads and hip flexors.
Click through below for my most frequently utilized posterior-chain strengtheners, as well as my favorite way to stretch the hamstrings for all clients.
(top photo of Kinue Hitomi racing Lina Radke at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics via wikipedia from the central press)