Most runners have frequent and recurring hamstring problems. It seems endemic to the sport. And it’s debilitating – if your hamstring is talking to you, then in Bob Dylan’s words, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
The anatomy and biomechanics of the lower extremity is complicated. A chart noting interrelated muscular actions in Joseph Hamill’s Biomechanical Basis of Human Movement provides a clear picture of how each muscle, joint, and tendon plays a role in proper movement in running gait. The three hamstring muscles (semimembranosus, biceps femoris, and semitendinosus) form the “meat” of the posterior (backside) thigh. And attached to these three, either directly or indirectly, are about a dozen muscles attaching to the hip and knee. If that isn’t involved enough there are the anterior (frontside) muscles that serve as antagonists to the posterior muscles. For example, the four quadriceps flex the hip while the hamstrings extend it. It’s a beautiful system when it works as designed!
But few of us have perfect biomechanics and things happen, the most noteworthy being imbalances. These may be minor, for which we tend to compensate without notice. But over time these imbalances build up and result in some muscles having to work harder than intended. When that happens, the overworked muscles get stronger and the ones getting off the hook become comparatively weaker.
I had had an ongoing left hamstring issue for over six months. I thought I was doing the right things: stretching, weightlifting several times a week, running hard-easy days, doing pool running, etc. The hamstring would get a bit better and I wouldn’t feel it much while racing or doing track workouts. Alternatively, it would get quite sore and I’d feel it from my first step. I simply could not consistently train and race. It was discouraging. So, I made an appointment with Marilynne Johnson, one of the most experienced and respected physical therapists in the Burlington area. Marilynne is a no-nonense PT. She also knows the mentality of runners — they want to keep running even while rehabbing! And she does her best to accommodate that.
Marilynne quickly sized up the problem and then explained what was going on. In my case, I had a proverbial imbalance: both my left and right hip flexors were weak and one was weaker than the other. This was wreaking havoc with my left hamstring, which had to work too hard and was being repeatedly strained. I was surprised when she pushed down on my knee and with very little force my leg gave way. Again, I thought I had been doing the right things, but obviously not!
Marilynne prescribed four bodyweight exercises and I left a bit unsure how to perform them correctly. When I returned in two weeks, I admitted I had been inconsistent with the exercises and needed a refresher. This time I wrote down the particulars and made sure I had a 90% understanding of the technique. From that point and over the past ten weeks I have only missed one day doing these PT exercises. I was honestly skeptical at first: they didn’t involve external weights; how much difference could they really make? But Marilynne knew her stuff, and after a couple weeks I noticed a difference and then after a couple more a marked change, followed by more change. Now I am able to lace up and start my runs without feeling the hamstring. It’s still a bit sore if I sit for an extended time afterwards, but then I get up and stretch it out. I expect to keep doing these. The eight minutes they take are well worth it!
The whole experience has taught/reminded me of several things:
- I don’t know as much as I thought about how the body works!
- Don’t underestimate the value of PT exercises, as simple as it may seem.
- Balance is critical in all functions of life. Running is no exception.
If one part of your body is holding you back, suspect there is an imbalance somewhere. Get it checked out by an experienced PT or sports medicine practitioner. And don’t wait six months like I did!