Oh, the hamstrings – those pesky back-of-the-leg muscles that can make a simple task like walking difficult when hurt or sore. But how can you tell the difference between soreness and actual injury when it comes to this muscle group?
You shouldn't automatically assume that soreness or the inability to walk correctly means you have a muscle strain. A strain is an acute tear that causes a sharp pain when you use the muscle. Soreness is created by micro-tears in the muscle and also referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, explains Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., owner and head of training at TS Fitness in New York City. "The differences between the two are how long the soreness lasts and how intense it feels at one time," he says. "If it's a strain, the pain can go past the 24-to-72 hour range that soreness would last, can hurt even at rest and, when activated, will feel very sharp and intense."
For the most part, because the hamstrings can be affected by many other factors, generally you're just dealing with soreness in that region. Here are some of the things that could be causing discomfort in your hamstrings, and ways for you to alleviate some of that pain.
Sitting All Day
If you work at a desk, you could be a victim. The issue is the shortened position your hamstrings are in when you’re sitting. “If the majority of your day is spent sitting, then the hamstrings will be constantly contracted, and the muscle filaments will lock into that shortened position," says Tamir. "If you then try to go for a run, it can be uncomfortable because you're pulling on and lengthening these muscles that are locked in a shorten state all day."
To help, try standing up every hour or two and doing some banded leg walks or banded leg lifts and lowers.
Sitting all day can also wreak havoc on the hips. “This position shortens the hip flexor, pulling the hips into an anterior tilt, which lengthens the hamstrings," says Tamir. If your hips are tight, chances are that your body will be pulled into more of an anterior pelvic tilt, forcing your hamstrings to be stretched. "The mistake most people make is then trying to stretch out the hamstrings, but they're already in this lengthened position, so it can cause soreness," says Tamir. "Instead, they should focus on rolling out or stretching the hips because that's where the issue is originating from."
Strong Curve in Your Back, or Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Does your spine have a more pronounced curve, causing the front of your torso to sometimes stick out a bit more? It can be common for women, as they tend to have more of a difference between the strength of their quads (being more dominant) versus their hamstrings (being weaker), explains Tamir.
But, as mentioned above, tight hips can also play a role. This can also add to your hamstring discomfort. "When your back is more curved, it pulls the muscles of the anterior chain into more of a lengthened position," says Tamir. "This also puts your core in a weak position because it doesn't allow for your ribs to be stacked on your pelvis, which creates a good environment for you to use your core and glutes."
To help make sure your core is turned on, try doing some reclined toe touches, while keeping your back flat on the floor.
Weak Glutes and Core
Speaking of the core and glutes, if these muscles are weak, that could lead to some hammie issues. These muscles are extremely important for things like running, so if you're not using them, you could be using your hamstrings instead. Translation: Runners with an exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt may be at a higher risk for hamstring soreness.
"You use your hamstrings a lot for running since it's a hip-extensor and knee-flexor, and even more so if you can't fire-up your glutes or core," says Tamir. "If you don't stretch your hamstrings and decide to up your mileage quickly, it could lead to some serious pain."
Ways To Help Alleviate The Pain
The best way to help alleviate hamstring tightness is doing mobility and activation work, explains Tamir. "This could mean foam rolling pre- and post-workout, hitting the hip flexors, glutes, TFL, calves and quads," he suggests. "Some post-workout static stretching of the hamstring, hip flexor, quad, calves and glutes can be good too, as they help with absorption of hormones and increase flexibility."
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