Your Hamstrings Probably Aren't Tight, But If They Are, Who Cares?

Patients tell me everyday how tight their hamstrings are.  There are several reasons someone may feel tight but may not actually be tight. Additionally, if someone has been labeled as "tight" does it really matter?

This post will focus on runners, because we (yeah I'll include myself in this) love to talk about how tight our hamstrings are.  However, there's something here for everyone. 

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The feeling of tightness is just that- a feeling.  There are several things that can cause this feeling beyond actual tight muscles. One common culprit is called neural tension.  We have nerves that run the length of all our muscles (the sciatic nerve follows the hamstrings down the leg). Nerves are meant to glide freely when we move.  When they don't (several things can cause this) we will feel tight even when the muscles themselves are not tight. 

Tightness is a protective mechanism.  When the brain senses that the body is in a threatening situation it will contract muscles to brace the body.  Think about any time you were startled, in a car accident, shoved, or even stressed. We can't help but tighten up.  When the body feels unstable or uncomfortable with a movement, the hamstrings may contract a bit giving the feeling of tightness.  

Maybe your hamstrings are tight, but does it matter?  Watch anybody run and you'll see how little hamstring flexibility is actually needed.  In fact, having "loose" hamstrings may hinder performance. The true function of these muscles while running is to store and release energy. Runners need springy hamstrings, not wet noodles.  

The runner pictured below is British distance runner, Mo Farah.  On the left you see him mid-stride with his right leg as far as it will go forward.  The next picture shows Mo on his back.  Imagine he's doing a hamstring stretch. Not much flexibility needed, eh?

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With this in mind, is stretching like the image below really necessary?

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Take Home Message:
If you like stretching your hamstrings keep doing it, just don't feel like you have to.  As I said, having springy, tight hamstrings can actually be beneficial to running.  This does not mean that stretching will make you slower, however.  Holding a static stretch for more than 60 seconds right before activity may lead to a slight decrease in performance, but it's negligible. There are sports where lots of flexibility is needed, but distance running is not one of them. 

People worry too much about the mobility they don't have and not enough about controlling the mobility they do have.  Things like slow heal lowers for the calves or RDLs for the hamstrings will strengthen the muscles and tendons and work the end ranges of the muscles.  I'll take a strong runner over a flexible one any day. 

The feeling of tightness is a symptom.  The actual cause of the tightness will vary greatly between individuals.  If you feel uncomfortably tight, let us help you figure out why.  Give us a call (980) 819-5818, or schedule online by clicking below.

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