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Tight Hamstrings? Ditch the Stretch (and the Internet Lies)

All runners are familiar with the penguin waddle.

The funky walk you do the day after a hard, long, or fast workout because your hamstrings are tight and you can't go down the stairs like a normal person.

Or maybe for you, it's a constant tightness and achiness living in the back of your thighs, but you can walk just fine.

It's when you go to run that you feel an invisible string holding your legs back?

If this is you, I'm sure you've done your share of hamstring stretches on a chair, or a stair, or the floor.

You've tried using a yoga strap, a foam roller, a massage gun…

And maybe they helped (for a while) and maybe they didn't.

But the one thing you do know, you haven't found "the solution" yet.

What if I told you it's NOT your fault?

Because you've done all the things you're "supposed" to but the internet lied to you.

I think it's time for one more experiment.

It's time you Dare to Train Differently.

Because frankly, you and your hamstrings deserve better.

Let's dive in.

Is it your Hamstrings? TEST IT!

If you're new here: welcome to the running fit fam! We like to test and re-test.

What does that mean?

Below, I have 2 different tests for you to try.

What these tests do is:

  • give you information about your body.

  • there is NO wrong answer, just information.

  • These tests are never about shaming your body; they're always about respecting and listening to your body.

Because whether you believe it or not, your body is always talking to you. You just need to listen.

TEST #1 ASLR (active straight leg raise):


  1. Lying on your back, arms down by your side with palms up, line up the middle of your thigh with a door post, walk way entrance, a really tall standing lampstand…anything sturdy enough that will serve as a perpendicular reference point. (I promise, this is the most complicated part of the test. It's easy from here!)

  2. The leg that is closest to your doorway-reference point: that leg stays on the ground; don't move it!

  3. Raise the OPPOSITE leg as high as you can while keeping that leg straight the whole time. (once that knee starts to bend at all, that's it. That's where you stop.)

  4. Flip around and repeat on the other side.

Test Results:

  • do your toes just start to reach that doorway? NOT past the door way, NOT mid door way, just starting to reach that doorway?

  • Compare what you observed and felt side to side: can one leg pass the test but the other doesn’t? Do you feel any hamstring stretching or tightness; is it different side to side?

The Hard Core Explanation
  • What we're looking for here is 70 degrees of uncompensated hip flexion.

  • Remember, this perpendicular doorway-lampstand situation is bisecting your thigh at a true 90 degrees. We don't need to be at 90 degrees; 70 degrees is just fine.

  • By keeping your knee straight the entire time AND bending at your hip (hip flexion) we are challenging those hamstrings by putting them on stretch and assessing hamstring muscle length. (Psst: You'll find that it's easier to bend your hip if your knee is bent at the same time…this is because you're giving your hamstring muscles some slack ;) but that's cheating )

How to know if you're cheating:

If the only way to get your toes to just start to meet your doorway/door post etc is by:

  • bending your knee

  • arching through your low back

  • or by allowing the knee on the floor to bend…go straight to jail do not pass GO; do not collect $200.

Instead…try this test again with one small change.

TEST #2 SASLR (stabilized active straight leg raise)

  1. Same set up as before: on your back, arms down by your side with palms up, middle of your thigh lined up at 90 degrees with a door post, etc.

  2. THE DIFFERENCE: with both palms flat on the floor, push both hands into the floor...while raising your leg up, knee straight, like before.

  3. Can you make it now? Can you more easily bring your toes to just about touching your reference doorway while while keeping your knee straight?

  4. Flip around and repeat on the other side

Test Results:

  • Compare side to side: do your toes just start to reach that doorway?

  • do both legs pass the test easily now or does one struggle more than the other?

  • How does this test differ compared to the first test? Notice changes side to side.

Results Are In

I know, by know you're hunting this blog post for the magical "fix my hamstrings stretch".

Hold on a minute and walk through this with me.

Runners are constantly told how their glutes are weak or lazy or shut off, consistently struggle with achey hips or hip flexors, and/or feel limited and more than a little awkward running with tight hamstrings.


On first attempt during these tests, you *might* feel your hamstrings literally holding you back as you struggle to bring your leg up while keeping your knee straight

(I know I sure felt it on my R side…)

But whose really running the show here?

THE ALMIGHTY CORE

If you’ve tried both versions of this test, then you're just beginning to scratch the surface!

Remember: our bodies are smart, marvelous movement machines/systems. And they're constantly adapting and overcoming…so you can live your life and go on amazing runs.


The "downside" to this: sometimes the adaptions result in compensations. But when you flip a switch and recruit long-lost teammates (all hail, the almighty core), something magical happens.

Your body adapts again. And can achieve new things. Like passing this test.

Which by the way, could you feel your core muscles kick on the harder you pressed into the ground? (kinda cool, right?)

The reason we activate your core to create this change: to really tease out whether it’s those hamstrings holding you back or whether there's some anterior (front) core vs posterior (back) core vs hip mobility issues lurking in the background.
Interpret Your Test:

ACTIVE STRAIGHT LEG RAISE TEST (ASLR):

  • Passed the test on both legs?

    • You have good hip mobility in flexion and extension with good core activation and control

  • Passed the test on only one leg?

    • You *might* be missing some hip extension/mobility on the opposite leg OR your core hasn't kick on (yet) like it should to help coordinate the movement OR those hammies might holding you back.

  • Can't pass it on either leg?

    • Same situation as above. (don't panic; I promise you're not going to spontaneously combust.)

STABILIZED ACTIVE STRAIGHT LEG RAISE (SASLR):

  • Passed the test this time with both legs?

    • Congratulations-all you needed was a little extra core activation and your body automatically adapted. You *might* want to do some core work as a warm up before you next run.

  • Passed the test this time on only one leg?

    • It's to peel back another layer of complexity. With your core now engaged, we know that while It might be helping, something else is holding you back. You could be missing some hip mobility in hip extension and/or posterior chain activation/stability (posterior chain = "back core", muscles from shoulders down to your calves)

  • Struggle-busing still on both legs?

    • Sounds like you might need to hit all 3 key points: anterior or front core, posterior chain or back core, and some hip mobility.

Can you start so see (and feel) how you're NOT crazy?

How all those hammie stretches and hours (ok, loooong minutes) spent on that foam roller didn't deliver you the answer to the real, underlying issue?

And yes, it *can* get a little confusing here trying to decide which is the real "culprit" but don't worry, that's why there are professionals (such as myself) to help guide you through this process.

The Point:

You're building your knowledge and understanding of your own body. And you now have an objective, repeatable, reproducible way to test and re-test your body.

Speaking of which, let's talk about this. (if you're already a pro at testing and re-testing, skip ahead to the next section.)

  • Ideally, you use these tests before you run. They don't take long. Do them; don't overthink them. Let the answer be obvious and easy.

  • Pick ONE of the exercises below. Do it.

  • Then, re-test (do the tests again). Notice any change: better? Get out the door and go run! Worse or no different? Try the other exercise. Test again. Notice again.

  • Still no difference? Don't worry. These two exercises are NOT the only ones. They're just to get you started.

Pass Your Test:
Now that we’ve waded through the differential diagnosis weeds, it’s time to give you some action steps.

Try ONE of these exercises and…(you know the drill)…re-test afterwards noting any change.

Worse or no different? Try the other exercise and rinse and repeat.

CORRECTIVE EXERCISES:

(pick 1; perform to fatigue for 2-3 sets)

  • Supine alt toe touches

  • Straight leg bridge

    • (the trick with this one: do this exercise with the same leg that didn't pass the test, aka-that leg should be the one UP, NOT on the foam roller.)

    • Pssttt: don't forget to re-test!


Now What? Let's break these down.

  • Can you see how these assess your readiness to run + your general hamstring situation?

  • And can you see how the test and the exercises look like running?

  • Both of them place you in a reciprocal leg position (aka one leg is forward like your striding forward and the opposite leg is hanging back as if you're just about to come off those toes).

  • And they demonstrate how your core and glutes and anterior/posterior all work and coordination together and when they do…those compensations your body picks up out of bad habit tend to go away.

Which Exercise Improved Your Test?

Alternate Toe Touches:

  • This one most likely helped because it activated your anterior (front) core.

  • By doing that, you've told the muscles in the posterior chain they don't have to hold on so "tight" and it's "safe" to loosen up those hamstrings.

  • This results in a longer, more effortless stride. See you later, speedy Gonzalez ;)

Straight Leg Bridge with Foam Roller:

  • This exercise most likely helped because while in a position that looked like running, you re-taught your glutes how to activate in a single leg position in coordination with your core + opposite hip flexor. (pretty cool, right?)

  • By doing this, you've potentially unlocked any "missing" hip mobility (specifically extension).

  • You know what this means? You can potentially run faster! Studies have shown that when runners lack hip extension, they run slower. But that's not you anymore. ;)

WRAP IT UP

What's your take now on tight hamstrings? Is there more to it than you thought?

Now you're armed with the tools and knowledge of testing and asking your body what it needs, specifically, what your hamstrings need.

Remember: hamstring tightness can be multifactorial, meaning, there can be a ton of different reasons.

For that reason, try your own exercises if mine didn't help!

Exercises to try out: different ab exercises, glute exercises or general posterior chain exercises.

Keep in mind:

  • hamstrings can *still* be tight simply because they're fatigued from a hard workout (this is ok! It's when they're always tight we know something is up).

  • Hamstrings can also present or feel tight because of something called neural tension (another blog post for another time).

Don't feel overwhelmed.

Just like you don't run a marathon on Day 1 of being a runner, you also might not understand your body 100% during these tests.

It's a process.

And you've got this.

Got questions about this? Leave them in the comments below!

Until next time, running fit fam

Dare to Train Differently,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT //@dr.whitt.fit

P.S. Looking for some hip mobility and other exercises to try out alongside these tests? Check out my FREE RUNNING GUIDE here!

 

References:

Cook, G. and Burton, L. (2018) Functional Movement Assessment Level 2. 11th edn. Chatham, VA: FMS.


Cook, G. and Burton, L. (2020) Selective Functional Movement Assessment Level 1. 26.2 edn. Chatham, VA: FMS.


Cook, G. (2017) Movement: Functional movement systems: Screening, Assessment and Corrective Strategies. Santa Cruz, CA: On Target Publications.


Mettler, J., Shapiro, R., & Pohl, M. (2019). Effects of a Hip Flexor Stretching Program on Running Kinematics in Individuals With Limited Passive Hip Extension. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 33(12), 3338-3344. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000002586



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