If you struggle to touch your toes without bending your knees or if you have pain anywhere down the back your thigh when running, you might suffer from tight hamstrings. Your hamstrings are one of three muscles that run down the back of each leg between your hips and knees.
Modern life means that we sit down a lot more and don’t use these muscles as much as we should. This can lead to tightness which can impact your daily life. Runners, in particular, might find they are susceptible to hamstring tightness if they do not warm up and cool down properly. If you suffer from tight hamstrings, try these 10 exercises to help increase flexibility and decrease pain.
1. Do stretches on your back
When trying to resolve tight hamstrings, many people instinctively bend over and try to touch their toes. Instead, try lying on your back with a resistance band over your foot and gently ease each leg upwards. This will prevent you from straining your muscles by forcing yourself down too quickly, or “bouncing” on the stretch.
2. Don’t hold stretches too long
The optimum time you should hold each stretch is for 15-30 seconds. When you are first trying to ease your hamstring tightness, aim to hold it for 10 seconds at a time and repeat 5-6 times rather than trying to hold a stretch for a full minute.
3. Stretches shouldn’t hurt
While you should be pushing yourself, a stretch should never hurt, so it’s important that you learn the difference. Never force a stretch or hold it for too long. Your muscles aren’t like elastic bands, they won’t just stretch to your will. Using a resistance band and doing stretches on your back will prevent you from pushing or forcing a stretch too far.
4. Rule out other reasons
If you have any problems with your knees, hips or ankles, these can all lead to hamstring tightness. It’s important that you rule out any physiological reasons for your tight hamstrings before you move on to stretching out the muscles. For example, fallen arches can cause issues with your knees which will, in turn, lead to problems with your hamstrings. If you are generally active and still suffering from tight hamstrings, see a doctor or physiotherapist to see if there is an underlying issue.
5. Invest in a foam roller
Before and after a workout, spend some time with a foam roller. These inexpensive pieces of kit are used for something known as myofascial release. It involves applying gentle pressure to areas of your body in order to soften the myofascial connective tissues. The result is decreased recovery time and decreased muscle stiffness.
6. Increase overall flexibility
If you struggle with hamstring tightness, chances are there are other parts of your body that are suffering too. Rather than just focussing on this one area, try to see your body as a whole. Trying exercises like yoga or Pilates can help you to increase overall flexibility. Runners in particular report decreased recovery time and greater flexibility when working yoga into their training schedule.
7. Strengthen your core
Tight hamstrings can sometimes be a sign that your legs are overcompensating for a weakness elsewhere in your body. Strengthening your core is a great way to counteract this. Your core is made up of 29 muscles across your abdomen, back and pelvic floor. You can strengthen your core using exercises like planks and sit-ups.
8. Focus on fundamental exercises
Lunges and squats are the simplest exercises you can do to help increase flexibility and increase strength in the legs. If you lead a largely sedentary life during the day, try to get up and out of your chair more often and do these simple moves. Try fitting in as many squats as possible while you are waiting for the kettle to boil for your morning coffee. Try highly controlled lunges when you are getting ready for work in the morning.
9. Switch up your cardio
If you are a runner and trying to treat tight hamstrings, try to switch up your main source of cardio for a few weeks. Getting into the pool can help take the pressure off your joints and elongate your muscles. You could also try high-intensity interval training, or get on a spinning bike for a fast-paced but low impact exercise. If your hamstring tightness resolves itself, then you may need to look at your running form or invest in a more supportive pair of shoes.
10. Grab a tennis ball
If you are suffering from short-term hamstring tightness and want a quick fix, you can use myofascial release using a simple tennis ball. Pop the ball on the floor and step on it right in the middle of the ball of your foot. Press the tennis ball firmly into the ground and hold for a few seconds. Then move the ball about an inch down your foot towards your heel and apply pressure again. Keep going until the ball is at the back of your foot arch. It might be uncomfortable, but you should find that you have instant relief.