Are you a hamstring stretcher? Do you say things like, “My hamstrings are always tight no matter how much I stretch them?” Do you bend down to touch your toes and make it to mid calf…maybe?
If so, you're in good company. Hamstring tightness has reached epidemic proportions and seems to plague everyone from runners to elite triathletes.
Here’s the question, though: If the answer to tight muscles is stretching them, then shouldn’t stretching your hamstring make them more flexible? If you're finding that your hamstrings stay restricted and tight regardless of how much you stretch them, then perhaps the answer isn’t tightness after all.
For some people, the tightness that you feel in your hamstring is tension felt from the sciatic nerve as it travels through the hamstring and down the calf. The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back, travels through the back of the hip underneath the hip muscles, in between the hamstring muscles and down into the calf.
A significant compression of the sciatic nerve underneath the hip muscles results in sciatica, a painful condition that includes pain, numbness and tingling down the leg. However, a slight compression of the sciatic nerve can develop from repetitive activities that will cause only a minor irritation of the nerve. In this case, the most common symptom is a feeling of tension down the nerve pathway, a pathway that runs right through the hamstring muscles.
Here are three easy steps to determine whether the restriction in your hamstring is muscle tightness or nerve tension:
1. Perform a basic straight-leg raise (SLR).
To do this, lay on your back with your legs straight. Lift each leg, one at a time, and note the angle of your leg. You should be able to lift your leg to at least 90 degrees. Take note of where you feel the tension.
2. Use a foam roller or other self-myofascial release (SMR) to work the back of your hip.
Myofascial release is a form of soft-tissue therapy for the treatment of skeletal muscle immobility and pain. Follow this by stretching the back of your hip. This will help to break up the tightness and lengthen the muscle.
3. Perform a second straight-leg raise.
If there is an improved angle and decrease in tension, it is likely that there may be a minor irritation of the sciatic nerve. If you don’t see any change, it is very likely that your hamstrings are in fact the problem.
If that's the case, here’s what you can do today to start improving your flexibility through the hip and hamstrings.
1. Focus on stretching your hip daily.
Even if a series of hip stretches was already on your regular agenda, a newfound intention may make all the difference. For all the yogis out there, an easy stretch for the hip is the pigeon pose. Another option is to sit on the floor, crossing your right leg over your left with your right knee bent (see image below). Hug your knee into your chest and you’ll feel the stretch in the back of your right hip. Repeat both sides with a hold for 60 – 90 seconds.
2. Don’t neglect your hamstring.
Remember that the hip and hamstring work together. Focusing on improving flexibility of both will maintain proper muscle health. Quick tip: Start with stretching the hip first and then move onto stretching the hamstring. This will make sure that you clear any restriction in the hip that may be masking as hamstring tightness first. It will also allow you to more effectively stretch and maintain the health of your hamstring.
3. Try myofascial release therapy.
Professionals who focus on soft-tissue treatments will help to clear out myofascial restrictions. Massage therapists, physical therapists and chiropractors may have advanced training in myofascial release techniques. Stretching may not be enough. Including SMR to your flexibility program will address some chronic tightness that may be too tough for stretching alone to manage.
The mechanics of the hip, hamstring, and calf are complex. The prevalence of hamstring tightness has led to a plethora of great treatment options. Don’t hesitate to consult your physical therapist, chiropractor, or trainer for other options to manage your muscle tightness.