How Runners Can Prevent Tight Hamstrings

Hamstring Stretch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

If you feel a tightness in your hamstrings before, during, or after a run, that stiffness can adversely affect your running and lead to other injuries. It's unfortunately a common complaint among runners.

"I have experienced tight hamstrings from time to time," says John Honerkamp, RRCA and USATF certified coach and founder of Run Kamp. "I found that there was a direct correlation to a tight lower back."

To combat tight hamstrings, many experts recommend stretching and identifying the source of the tightness—like the lower back mentioned by Honerkamp. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions for prevention and treatment. Here is what you need to know about tight hamstrings including what you can do to remedy the situation so that you can have a looser, more enjoyable run.

Why Do Runners Have Tight Hamstrings? 

Hamstring muscles run from the hip joint to the knee joint and contain three muscles—the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. This group of muscles is on the backside of your thighs, below your glutes. They contract when you bend at your knee or hip and are vital for running.

If you've injured one or both hamstrings, you're are more likely to experience tightness. A strain or tear in any of the hamstring muscles causes a scar, shortening the affected muscle and decreasing the range of motion.

"Usually, [I get tight hamstrings] after a hard sprint session, a long plane ride or day of work, or dehydration," says Carrie Tollefson, Rock' n' Roll Running Series Coaching Ambassador. "Another big culprit is my lower back and glutes."

Weakness in other muscles also might be the cause of your hamstring tightness. For example, weak glutes can lead to the hamstring muscles overworking, especially when running. The result is tight hamstrings.

"I don't know of any runner who hasn't suffered from tight hamstrings," adds Dave Thomas, Thomas Jefferson University, Head Coach of Cross Country and Track and Field. "It's part of the natural reaction to running—especially if you're running on streets, cement, hard surfaces. It shorts up the muscles and it's a major thing that runners face with using those muscles."

How Runners Can Avoid Tight Hamstrings 

While there are some options you can use to relieve tight hamstrings, the best medicine is prevention. Try adding these tips to your pre- and post-running routine to prevent your hamstrings from getting tight.

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling—a type of myofascial release—is a great way to prevent muscle tightness and soreness. It involves using a foam roller to help massage the muscles.

How to Foam Roll Your Hamstrings

  1. Start in a sitting position on the floor or a mat with your knees bent.
  2. Place the foam roller under your left hamstring and extend the left leg.
  3. Keep the right knee bent for support.
  4. Place your hands on the mat with fingers facing your feet.
  5. Move your left leg gently forward and back, making the foam roller glide from above your knee to below your glutes.
  6. Repeat this rolling motion for 30 to 120 seconds.
  7. Repeat on the right side.

Aim to foam roll hamstrings after exercise and before stretching.

Cross-training

Cross-training is vital for prevention because weak muscles around the hamstrings can cause tightness. For example, one study showed hamstring stretches and quadriceps exercise effectively reduced hamstring tightness and improved flexibility.

Cross-training involves working other muscles and helps reduce overuse muscle injuries. For example, adding strength training workouts can help build muscles commonly underworked during running and prevent overuse injuries.

There are three types of exercise to include in cross-training—cardio, strength training, and recovery. Because running is a cardio exercise, you need to add strength training and recovery. An example would be adding bodyweight exercises for strength training and yoga for recovery.

Proper Hydration 

Dehydration is one of the causes of tight hamstrings. It's important to drink enough water before, during, and after running to stay hydrated. Your muscles—and the rest of your body—depend on it.

How to Hydrate

To stay properly hydrated, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests:

  • Drinking 16 to 20 ounces of water 4 hours before exercise
  • Hydrating as much as you need to quench your thirst during exercise
  • Rehydrating after exercise with 16 to 24 ounces for every pound lost

Not rehydrating properly after exercise can cause muscle soreness and prohibit proper recovery. But you may need more than water to rehydrate after a run.

A small study found that participants were less likely to get muscle tightness and cramps when drinking water with electrolytes, as opposed to plain water.

Recovery Days 

Recovery days are crucial to prevent muscle tightness and injuries. Plus, rest and recovery are integral parts of cross-training.

In a 7-day plan, you need 2 to 3 days of recovery exercise and 1 to 2 days of rest. Examples of recovery day activities may include yoga, pilates, static stretching, Tai Chi, and foam rolling. Make sure you plan adequate recovery days in your training program in order to prevent tightness and injuries.

Stretching 

Stretching is key to preventing muscle soreness and tightness. Thomas recommends active dynamic stretching before running and static stretching after a run.

Hamstring tightness or stiffness can be a result of not stretching enough. Stretching elongates muscles, helping prevent that tight feeling. Active (dynamic) and passive (static) stretching are essential for flexibility.

Types of Stretching

  • Active, or dynamic, stretching: A movement that stretches your muscles and joints. It's a warm-up and stretch in one, which is perfect for runners. Examples include leg swings, hamstring sweeps, side lunges, and glute activations.
  • Static stretching: A movement that involves getting into a specific position and holding it for a period of time, such as 30 to 60 seconds. This type of stretching is best for after a workout while muscles are still warm. Examples include kneeling quad stretch, standing hamstring stretch, and calf stretches.

Hamstring Stretches For Runners 

If you're looking to actively prevent and alleviate tight hamstrings, here are some targeted hamstring stretches that will help you feel your best during and after a run. While stretching, take deep breaths and hold the stretches for 10 to 30 seconds each for three to five reps.

Standing Hamstring Stretch

  1. Extend one leg out by placing the heel on a slightly raised surface, such as a stair or curb.
  2. Keeping the spine straight, bend at the hip to bring the chest toward the thigh.
  3. The other leg that is not being stretched will also bend slightly at the knee.
  4. Hold this stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. Remember to keep breathing and concentrate on releasing muscle tension in the hamstring. Repeat each side three to five reps.

Toe Touch

  1. Start in a standing position.
  2. Bend at the waist.
  3. Reach for your toes, stretching as far as you can.
  4. Lift your pelvis upward to stretch the hamstrings.
  5. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds for three to five reps.

The Hurdler

Hurdler Stretch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

  1. Start in a sitting position with one leg extended and the other bent.
  2. Allow your bent leg to lower to the floor with the outer part of your knee toward the floor.
  3. Place the bottom of your foot on your inner thigh.
  4. Raise your arms and bend at the waist.
  5. Lower your upper body as far as possible over your leg.
  6. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds.
  7. Switch legs and repeat.
  8. Make sure to breathe deep, and concentrate on releasing muscle tension of low back and hamstring.

Inchworms

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

  1. Start in a standing position.
  2. Bend forward at the waist and touch the floor.
  3. Walk your hands forward into a standard pushup position.
  4. Complete one pushup.
  5. Walk your hands back to your feet and straighten back up into the starting position.

Reclined Hamstring Stretch

Hamstring Stretch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent.
  2. Raise and straighten your left leg and grab with your hands.
  3. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat on right leg.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to make safety a priority and not to overextend yourself, risking injury. When stretching, you want to feel a slight pull or tugging sensation, but never pain. Talk to a healthcare provider if you experience unbearable or lingering hamstring pain or if you have questions about running recovery.

While some experts enjoy stretching, others recommend yoga, massage, foam rolling, and hot baths with Epsom salts. You may need to try out a few different options to find out what works best for you and your body.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it OK to run with tight hamstrings?

    Hamstring tightness is considered pain, and you shouldn't exercise with overly tight hamstrings, as you may get a muscle strain.

    One study found that hamstring injuries affect running posture, which can lead to poor performance. Loosen up those muscles with stretching, foam rolling, cross-training, using recovery days, and staying hydrated.

  • Why do my hamstrings get tight so easily?

    There are various reasons why hamstrings may be tight. One reason is prolonged sitting, which many jobs require. Sitting for periods of 6 to 8 hours a day can cause tight hamstrings. Inadequate stretching is another cause of tight hamstrings.

  • How long does it take to loosen hamstrings?

    One study found that approximately 1 to 2 months of static stretching and strengthening the quads improved hamstring flexibility. However, the length of time it takes to loosen your hamstrings may depend on the severity of the tightness. Overall, it is a good preventative measure to include hamstring stretching in your daily routine.

  • Can tight calves cause tight hamstrings?

    There is a connection between tight calves and tight hamstrings. All muscles in the body are connected, so there is a correlation. If the calves are tight, there may be a change in gait that can lead to muscle compensation, soreness, and tightness.

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