If you’re involved in athletics you know that dreaded moment. The athlete pulls up grabbing the back of their thigh. As a coach it’s a gut wrenching moment. Experience tells us that single moment will lead to weeks if not months of rehab. Even when rehab is complete there’s that lingering concern of reoccurrence and the vicious cycle starts again. So how do we as Sports Performance coaches mitigate future hamstring pulls?
How does it happen?
Understanding the primary roles of the hamstring is a good starting place. This all important muscle acts a both a hip extensor and a knee flexor. For simplicity, think kicking the thigh back (hip extensor) and bending knee in a heel to butt action (knee flexion). Unlike other muscle groups with one job, this muscle can, and often is, simultaneously stretched and loaded at both ends to extreme levels – enter injury risk. This happens during the most basic and necessary of movements, like running.
The image above shows one of the two major moments for potential hamstring injury. The swing leg is coiled (left) during midstance and rapidly unwinds before touchdown (right). This action is called casting and is crucial to good running technique. Here the hamstring must decelerate the lower leg putting an eccentric strain on the knee flexor portion of the muscle. Eccentric actions are when force is generated during muscle lengthening, we are strong in these actions, however it’s when injury is most likely to occur.
This next image shows the other major moment of potential injury. This is the touchdown point where the knee and hip are minimally flexed, putting the hamstring in a longer orientation. Recent research shows this moment separates elite sprinters from average Joes. Good sprinters will snap their foot into the ground at touchdown creating a spike in force. This leads to a rapid ground contact and “springy” action in good sprinting. Again, this moment is also the culprit behind the “high” hamstring pull.
Training the Hamstring
So what are the best ways to prevent hamstring injuries? For starters, engraining the correct hip extension pattern is key. We practice RPR (Reflexive Performance Reset) for this very reason. It’s all too common for athletes to underutilize their glutes in hip extension. This creates more work for the hamstring and puts it at higher risk of injury. A simple glute reset, taking all of 15 seconds, will clean up that sequencing, get the glutes doing their fair share, improve performance and decrease injury risk. If you haven’t seen it in action, come see us!
From an exercise standpoint, the best way to mimic the highest demands on the hamstring is… sprinting. This should come as no surprise to any of our loyal RSP members. We love sprinting and here’s another reason why. Hamstring musculature has different activation patterns at different speeds (this article goes into it more). So if we want to expose the hamstring to the stress it endures during sprinting, the best and only way is to sprint!
In the weight room we aim to recreate positions, actions, speeds and forces similar to the game. We use a variety of techniques to do so. The picture above shows three of our favorites. Using bands to create an overspeed effect is a valuable tool in hamstring training. This can be done with bent knees (top left above) targeting the knee flexor action of the hamstring, or on the back with straight legs to target the hip extensor action.
Our other favorites come from Alex Natera’s run specific ISOs. Using catches (top right) and overcoming ISOs (bottom picture) allows us to recreate the touchdown moment challenging athletes’ hamstrings with an extended knee and neutral hips. These are advanced exercises demanding rapid force production. The positions, timing and forces are potent training stimuli.
We’ll never prevent all hamstring injuries. Sports are chaotic in nature, full of unpredictable moments, some of which result in injury. But proper training can prepare an athlete for the many predictable, repetitive moments. It just so happens that good injury prevention is also good performance training. So getting better and more resilient can be one in the same!