The hobbling effect of a hamstring injury, the discomfort from sitting, and the frustration of not being able to run as you want can seem to go on and on. And as with many running injuries, the conventional treatment can be time-consuming and sometimes frustratingly ineffective.
The first thing you need to know is the same no matter what injury you have: stretching, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications actually interfere with healing. That’s often part of the reason why you’re frustrated that you’re getting better so slowly.
The second key thing to know is that how you run is often responsible for causing the stress that turned into injury to begin with, and then for perpetuating that stress so the injury seems like it will never go away.
You can often feel better quite quickly if you know what it is about your running technique that needs to shift.
They thing I’ve seen most often in runners with a hamstring injury—particularly high in the hamstrings, just below the butt—is a tucked pelvis.
Many runners do this in an attempt to improve their form by “correcting” an anterior pelvic tilt.
The problem with this is twofold. First, your pelvis is supposed to tip anteriorly when you run. This is part of your forward lean, a critical element of healthy running form.
Second, though runners generally are instructed to use their abdominal muscles to pull their pelvis out of a natural anterior tilt, in fact the hamstrings nearly always participate in this as well, maintaining a continuous downward pull on the bottom of the pelvis.
This is stressful because at the same time the hamstrings are working through a range of motion to control the legs and propel the runner forward. So the very same muscles are being asked to contract continuously and continually vary their action.
It’s like being told to say “aaaaaaaaaaaaa” and “Mary had a little lamb” at the same time. It’s a direct contradiction.
Little wonder that eventually a hamstring seizes up under the strain.
There’s a second common way to really irritate a hamstring, which is to pull your hip back as your leg swings forward…or simply to be pulling your hip back all the time in an effort to maintain a perfectly stable pelvis. As I described in this article, this creates a yank in the hamstring as the leg swings forward.
In my practice I’ve been able to quickly help runners relieve the stress on their hamstrings by helping them feel how to let the pelvis tilt anteriorly and move in what I call the core action.
You may be saying to yourself, “But my lower back will arch if I let my pelvis tip forward.” However that’s not necessarily true. Along with your anterior tilt, your head needs to move forward so your whole spine will move into a neutral alignment on a forward angle. This is your forward lean. I describe how this works for some elite distance runners at the Olympics here.
When you lean forward properly, your hamstrings work much better for propulsion, as your hip joints no longer need to hyperextend so much in order to allow your pelvis to pass your stance foot.
And again, when your core action allows your pelvis to move in support of the movement of your legs, your hamstrings don’t suddenly get yanked on your forward leg swing and can decelerate the swing leg without undue stress.
I’ve put together my best resources to help you learn to support your hamstrings with a good core action and better coordination for hip joint flexion and extension. I’ve also included a calf warmup that has a very positive effect on hamstring function as you run. Get these resources for free here:
Although you probably have some of your own personal movement habits intertwined with the patterns that have given you hamstring problems, taking these steps I’ve outlined should help put you solidly on your way to well-functioning hamstrings and smoother, better running.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.