Stop Blaming the Hamstrings

How many times have we seen it, someone is running full speed and they grab their hamstring and pull up. I’ve been competing in track and field for the past 17 years and I have pulled my hamstring more times than I have fingers. The worst pull I had was when I was in college my senior year between the indoor and outdoor season, I tore my semitendinosus while running a 200m repeat in practice. I thought that was the end of my college career but thankfully Dr. Rob DeStefano, the New York Giants chiropractor, was able to fix myself up enough in 3 treatments that I competed the entire outdoor season with a torn semitendinosus. That’s not something I would recommend to an athlete but there was no way I was going to sit out. Then for the next 4 years post collegiately, every time I did something fast, I was always fearful of pulling my hamstring. I continued to compete post collegiately but more times than not, I seemed to pull my hamstring. One year, I competed in 6 track meets, I pulled my hamstring in 4 of these meets. I speak from personal experience when I say I know how much of a deterrent a hamstring issue can be to an athlete’s career and mindset.

Stop Blaming The Hamstrings

How many times have you seen an athlete pull up with a hamstring injury

So why did I continually pull my hamstring? And, more importantly, what did I do differently to erase my fear and no longer have to worry about pulling my hamstring? Well, let’s start at the beginning. In college when I hurt my hamstring, I went to the athletic trainers at my school. They did ice and stim and told me that my hamstrings were tight and that I needed to stretch them. This very well may be some advice that you have also received before. I did as I was told and static stretched my hamstrings 5-6 times a day every day. I would use a rope to help get more of a stretch. I can remember using that rope and stretching them as much as I could minutes before starting a workout or competing in a meet thinking it would help. I even went and saw this guy who was a “stretching specialist”. Yet, it seemed like the more I stretched, the more I pulled them, at the time, I couldn’t make sense of it.

As an athlete, I didn’t have the resources to solve my problem. I was given bad information that didn’t allow me to fix what needed to be fixed in order to solve my issue. The problem with my hamstrings was that they didn’t have a problem. Biomechanically I had issues that caused my hamstrings to have to overwork and as a result, I kept pulling the hamstring. Yet, all the treatment that I had focused on trying to lengthen my already vastly overworking hamstrings. I, however, never once thought to myself, maybe the hamstrings aren’t the cause despite having the same issue over and over again. The people providing my treatment were pain chasers, I don’t believe in chasing pain. The biomechanics of the athlete always tell you the full story, you just have to know how to read it.

Every athlete is different, if athlete A pulls his hamstring and athlete B pulls his hamstring, they don’t necessarily have the same issue. It is hard to make generalizations about what an athlete should do with hamstring issues. It is easier to make generalizations about what they should not do. They should absolutely not be static stretching their hamstrings after they’ve pulled. I think of muscles like rubberbands. If you had a rubberband that was ready to break, would you stretch it out more? Tight hamstrings are almost always a product of a lack of stability somewhere or an unbalanced pelvic tilt. This is where the treatment efforts should be addressed. Very, very rarely are hamstrings actually tight. In fact, I have yet to see someone with hamstring issues that were a result of well, just tight hamstrings.

In my particular case, I had a lot of issues going on that were contributing to my hamstring issues. I had a severe case of anterior pelvic tilt and a lack of internal core stability. At top speed, my running biomechanics were awful. Rather than sprinting with my hips tall, I sat with my hips. If you don’t have a background in sprint training, you most likely won’t understand what I mean by that last sentence. By sitting with my hips, I disengaged my glutes and made my hamstrings have to work way more than what they were designed to do. As a result of the extra work, I kept pulling my hamstrings. Your body is a wonderful machine and everything balances everything. If one thing is off by a little bit, another thing compensates so that you can still function, however, that leads to issues like pulled hamstrings.

Stop Blaming The Hamstrings

Anterior tilt of the pelvis places more tension on the hamstrings

After addressing the anterior pelvic tilt by doing  a lot of hip flexor work and fixing my core instability by doing diaphragm breathing and internal core activation, I was practically a brand new athlete. I also used video feedback and some great coaching (special thanks to Lewis University sprint coach Nate Probst and Lewis sprinter Mike Greco) to help with my sprint biomechanics. After years of poor technique, I still have bad habits with my sprint biomechanics, especially when I fatigue but I am very conscious and ever improving those at the ripe age of 28. My past two track and field seasons have been great to my hamstrings, absolutely no issues. No longer do I fear pulling my hamstring every time I run a workout. If you’ve hurt your hamstrings, stop blaming them, figure out what the problem is and address it so long term, you’ll be happy and your hamstrings will be happy! If someone tells you that you need to stretch your hamstrings more, you need to find someone else to give you advice.

-Dr. Brian Damhoff