Name any of the common trouble spots talked about by runners, and chances are the hamstrings will pop up on that list. The feet, knees, and back get a lot of attention, but the hamstrings can take you out of the run just as quickly. Before that happens to you, learn about how weak or disengaged hamstrings can hinder your run. Follow that up with 3 of the best hamstring exercises to keep them strong!
To start off, it’s important to know what role your hamstrings play in running. Sure, it’s easy enough to say they help move your leg, but what is their job specifically? How can their disfunction create a path to injury or inefficiency as a runner?
Your hamstrings act as the counterbalance to your quads. Where your quads help push you forward, your hamstrings pull. For every stride you take while running or walking, your hamstrings are there to pull your body back over your leg. Unfortunately, this relationship can become lopsided, which is where hamstring and knee pain come in.
You don’t have to have a direct injury to your hamstrings for your running to be negatively affected. In fact, two of the biggest contributors to knee pain don’t have anything to do with your knee at all. It comes back to your hammies.
Some runners may find that their quadriceps, the big muscle in the front of your upper thigh, try to do all the work. Whether you’re striding forward, running uphill, or squatting, your quads stabilize your leg and movement.
As a result, your hamstrings get to be freeloaders. They aren’t being recruited to work, so they become inactive. This contributes to an imbalance of power and strength in your leg. Your body loves balance, so when there is an imbalance, it can present as knee pain, sore and crampy calves, and hamstring pain.
The third musketeer to the leg powerhouses (in addition to the quads and hamstrings) are the glutes. The glutes contribute a huge amount of strength to the typical runner, especially when accelerating or powering uphill. Sometimes the glutes get lazy, though, and we call them inactive. Inactive glutes aren’t firing properly, so the hamstrings step in to do more work than normal.
Rather than the glutes and hamstrings working together to power you uphill, the hamstring is working overtime on their own, which can fatigue them prematurely. This fatigue can result in acute pain, cramps, or a shift in your running form that can create a domino effect of other problems.
So, knowing a little more about your hamstrings and the role they play in your running, how can you self-test to see if they’re working properly? And if they aren’t, what are the best hamstring exercises to get functioning optimally?
These following movements serve a dual purpose. They’re not only great test movements to make sure your hamstrings are working properly, but they can also serve as the rehab and strengthening work needed, if necessary.
Each movement builds on the previous one as far as difficulty and demand, so make sure to start at the beginning and follow the cues to keep your form spot on.
This is our starting point to get the glutes and hamstrings engaged and working. It’ll give you a good frame of reference for how to lift your hips and keep them square when you’ve have both feet supporting you.
If you do feel tenderness in your lower back, chances are you’re not squeezing your butt and using your hamstrings to keep your hips elevated. Though your feet aren’t moving, it can help to think of pulling your feet toward you as a way to engage your hamstrings.
If this movement is already difficult or you’re having trouble holding it for the full 30 seconds, you’ve found your starting point! Practice here in shorter increments of time until you build up to the full 30 seconds.
Taking away a point of balance will shed even more light into how much–or how little–your hamstrings are working
Take note of how this movement feels on one leg versus two. Did the hip of the lifted leg drop once you picked your leg up? Did the hamstring of your supporting leg start cramping up? If you answered yes to either of these, then this is where you’ll spend some time.
If it feels noticeably different on one side than the other, then it’s a good indicator that you’ve got some hamstring weakness on that side. If 30 seconds on either side is difficult, then you’d probably be well served by working on both sides.
The goal is to be comfortable and stable on each leg for at least 30 seconds (no hip dropping or cramping!) before moving on to the next hamstring exercise progression.
This is where it gets tough! The hamstring pull drills are like the bridge on steroids. Not only do you have to support your body in the bridge, but you’re adding dynamic movement to it. Go SLOWLY and be very mindful of your form. You won’t get any benefit from slamming through these, and in fact, risk tweaking your back or straining your hamstrings.
You’ll need something to put your feet on. For slippery surfaces like hardwood or laminate, your socks or a towel will work great. For non-slippery surfaces, furniture sliders or a bucket lid can do the trick.
The goal is to get 12 pulls in a row. Each pull should feel smooth and controlled, and your hamstrings should cramp up halfway through. That being said, this is not an easy exercise, especially if you’ve been working your way up through the previous two exercises. Feel free to start with only 6 or 8 pulls, and build your way up to the goal of 12.
Regression: To make this a little easier, you can allow your body to make contact with the ground after extending the legs out. This will give your muscles a quick break before you pull back into the starting bridge position.
This is a progression of the Double Hamstring Pull, and it’s a doozy. You should only use this exercise if your form is spot on in the previous three exercises, and you’ve hit the repetitions goal comfortably.
Again, your goal is to get 12 pulls on each leg. You might start with only one or two pulls per leg, and build from there. That’s totally okay! This challenge requires control and strength to complete, so don’t rush to get through them.
You can incorporate our three best hamstring exercises into your current strength training routine, or you can practice them as part of your dynamic warm up before heading out on a run.
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