Unfortunately for frequent runners, as well as other athletes in high-endurance sports, the hamstring muscle truly is your Achilles heel. Injuries ranging from a mild strain, all the way to a complete tear in the muscle tissue or the tendon are very common, and they require first aid on the spot to mitigate the pain, and then rehabilitation combined with an exercise program depending on the severity of the injury.
Since a large portion of injured runners have a high risk of repeated injury within a year, it’s crucial to understand the importance of prevention, as well as the best treatment options to lower the possibility of re-injury.
Understanding the Hamstring
A muscle group at the back of your thigh that constitutes a large segment of your posterior chain, the hamstring is made up of three separate muscles and connective tissue, ranging from underneath your pelvis and all the way to your tibia. Their primary role is to allow hip extension and knee flexion, which are key joint movements in walking, running or jumping.
While any segment of the hamstring can be injured, the most frequent injury in runners is of the outer hamstring muscle called the bicep femoris.
Common Causes of Injury
An imbalance in strength between the anterior and the posterior chain (the hamstring and the quadriceps in this case) is to a great degree responsible for injuries. The force of straightening the stronger quadriceps will pull your pelvis and overextend the hamstring, often causing a tear in the muscle or the tendon.
The gluteus muscles also play a key role in the proper functioning of the hamstring. That is why weak glutes can cause an overload on the hamstring, as your body tries to compensate for the necessary effort, thus causing a tear or a strain.
Improper warmup poses a great threat to your entire body, including your hamstrings, increasing your chances of injury. Muscle fatigue, or overtraining can also cause injury, particularly when there in another factor such as muscle weakness or strength imbalance. Lack of flexibility can also be a contributing factor, since limited range of motion can overload the hamstring.
Treatment and Prevention
Depending on the location, type and severity, the treatment will vary, but there are a few key steps each non-surgical rehabilitation program includes, and they are easily remembered as the RICE protocol.
Rest is the crucial first step to allow proper healing. Crutches can be used to enable walking without putting any weight onto the injured leg, because that might lead to further tissue damage and slow down healing.
Adjusting your nutrition can be quite helpful. It is important to improve your magnesium intake, either by eating such fruit like bananas or getting some quality magnesium supplements to help your body heal faster.
Ice is the go-to treatment for any sports-related injury, because regular ice packs placed on the affected area help reduce swelling and alleviate pain. My injury required ice packs 3-4 times every day, 15 minutes in duration, to help me manage pain in the first several days.
Compressing your leg with an elastic bandage may help reduce swelling and scarring by preventing further bleeding.
Elevate your leg on a pillow while lying down to minimize swelling and immobilize your leg, which will significantly help in the healing process.
Once the first few days or weeks (in case of a severe injury) have passed, and you no longer have any swelling, cold packs can be replaced with moist heat, to relieve pain and relax the affected muscle. In case of severe injuries and acute pain, your doctor might prescribe medications, which can also help with reducing swelling, but not necessarily, since pain relief is their primary function.
Prevention is essential, especially for those who have already had some form of injury, so proper warmup and cool down are vital parts of your training, and you shouldn’t rush through them. Maintain your cardiovascular health and well-balanced strength, work on your flexibility, gradually increase the duration and intensity of your training, wear proper protective gear and avoid overtraining for best effects.
Some hamstring injuries will heal within several weeks, while more serious ones need several months of immobilization, rest and rehabilitation exercises. It’s best if you consult a professional and allow for a physical therapist to monitor your recovery, and you’ll quickly be back on track!