Hamstring Health for Trail Runners

Updated: Jul 30

Weekends filled with a multitude of events, from 5ks to ultra marathons. The trails are calling! With taper craziness and last-minute preparations taking place, this is not the time to slack off from the detail work—the non-fancy stuff done behind closed doors. The stretching, rolling, and extra rest ensure the body is ready to tackle whatever distance lies beyond the start line.

Your hamstrings will be a major player in helping you reach the finish, so here's our down and dirty on how to keep your hamstrings happy through the race season.

The hamstrings are a grouping of three large muscles on the backside (posterior) of your leg, including the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, semitendinosus.

(Image by OrthoInfo )

In conjunction, these muscles are responsible for extending the hip and bending the knee when running.

Throughout a race, the hamstrings have to contract and relax with each step. They counterbalance the action of the quadriceps muscles, and if the hamstrings aren't in tune, they can be susceptible to cramping, strains, and, worst-case scenario, a rupture of a muscle belly itself.

The general health of this muscle group is essential for longevity and performance with running. Review the points below to keep them functioning optimally.

Adequate Hydration is Essential for Hamstring Health

One of the leading causes of injury to the muscle is poor or insufficient hydration. Dehydration dramatically reduces the ability of our muscles to contract and relax with movement. If we continue to operate in a dehydrated state, we can eventually cause significant cell damage, leading to cramping, strains, or injury.

"Water is the main component of the body and represents approximately 76% of muscle mass" ~ NIH

Especially during the weeks leading up to an event, make hydration a priority. Try to limit alcohol consumption and avoid foods high in sugar and salt, as they can impact fluid levels.

If you need help determining how much fluid you should be drinking to sustain optimal performance, review our piece about running and hydration to help get started.

Runners should focus on Mobility over Flexibility

To begin, if you're near (within two months) your goal race, we advise you to avoid a static stretching routine if you haven't started one already. Static stretching, especially for the hamstrings, can often cause more harm than good.

Static stretching requires you to lengthen the muscle to its maximum potential, without pain, and hold it for a set period before relaxing. This action may cause micro-tears to the muscle belly, temporarily weakening the muscle itself.

Think mobility or the process of moving a joint comfortably through its full range of motion.

High-tech and Low-tech Tools for Hamstring Health

There are many types of equipment to aid in prehabilitation, but the essential piece of low or high-tech instrument is the one you'll use.

Start with low-tech tools such as foam or handheld rollers. Rollers are great ways to manipulate muscle bellies, stimulate blood flow, relax and loosen fascia overlying muscle, and relieve knots and muscle soreness.

Spend 1 - 2 min on each portion of your hamstrings. Include the inner thigh area (medial), the back of the hamstring, and the glute area to just behind the back of the knee the outside portion of the hamstring (lateral). When rolling, be mindful not to use too much pressure or spend too long on a specific area due to the risk of causing more harm than good. Think of a gentle to light-moderate massage to the leg.

High-tech tools often used to keep the hamstrings moving well include massage guns and tens units.

Massage guns come in all shapes and sizes and at price points varying from about $100 to $1,000 and more. No, you do not need to spend a lot to get a piece of equipment that will work. Arguments persist as to what exact frequency is best to promote healthy muscle actions. Still, our take is that everyone is so different; individual research is best in determining which unit is best for you.

Much like techniques for massage rollers, spend no more than 1 - 2 minutes on each muscle group to avoid damaging the muscle. Remember, the idea is to facilitate optimal performance, not to force it.

Tens Units, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulators, are designed to send a low-level electrical pulse through the skin to facilitate a muscle contraction. This pulse can scramble the brain's pain receptors, reducing symptoms of discomfort and promoting blood flow to the intended area.

We strongly advise you to consult with a trained medical professional before purchasing a tens unit to determine how appropriate it is for hamstring health, especially if there is a history of injury.

More Rest Is Always Best

No, we don't want you reverting to a sedentary lifestyle, but rest and recovery are crucial for hamstring health. Amid race season is not the time in which we'll gain more fitness. With the buildup complete, recovery becomes the primary focus.

Try to avoid any unnecessary strenuous activities. Perhaps put the seasonal landscaping on hold, and cut yourself a break from heavy chore days inside. Recovery and rest are the recipes for hamstring performance at its best.