“A chronic hamstring strain can be one of the most frustrating injuries to deal with. Every time you think it’s better — boom — there it goes again. “I was feeling pretty good, so I just did [fill in the blank] and I think I re-injured it.” We’ve all said that at one point in our lives about some injury. The hamstring, however, just seems to be one of those injuries that takes forever to go away because we use our hamstrings for so many different exercises in CrossFit. And even when the pain finally does subside, many people continue to have tightness and discomfort that prevents them from performing at their best.
Now, let me be clear that I’m not talking about sciatic pain in the leg. That’s a whole other post for a different time. I’m talking about a localized injury/issue with the muscle itself. Often times simply stretching the hammy and having soft tissue work done to it will do the trick. Using lacrosse balls and foam rollers doesn’t tend to work too well for that area because you really can’t get enough pressure on the ball/roller to get deep into the muscle. But what if the stretching and soft tissue work doesn’t help? What do you do when the tightness or pain won’t go away? Something else in the body might be preventing your hamstring from healing properly or loosening from that chronically tight state. Let’s talk about four possible culprits that could be hurting your hamstring.
1. Hip flexors/Quads
I included these two together because they affect the hamstring in a similar fashion, and one of the quad muscles (rectus femoris) is also a hip flexor. There is a neuromuscular process known as reciprocal inhibition: when a muscle is activated, the opposing muscles are inhibited (sometimes referred to as “turned off” or “shut down”). Let’s say that you use your quad a lot and it’s tight; though it doesn’t feel bothersome to you, it could still be tighter than it should be. The hamstrings sense that the muscle spindles in the quad are engaged more than they should be, so the hamstring becomes slightly inhibited. This means that it might engage or fire a little bit later than it should when you are using it, or it might not contract to full capacity. Now you are asking the hamstring to do its normal functions, but it is not working to its normal capabilities. This can lead to increased tightness or a strained muscle.
The same thing goes for the iliopsoas, aka the hip flexors. Your strongest hip extensor is the glute max, followed by hamstrings and spinal erectors. If your hip flexors are tight (how many people sit throughout the day and then sleep on their side with their knees drawn up/hips flexed?), then reciprocal inhibition can affect the glutes. What does that have to do with the hamstring?
It might be an acute injury where the hammy pull is felt immediately, or it can build up over time, say in someone who goes on longer runs.
What to do:
Work through the quads and hip flexors with some sort of myofascial/soft tissue device, or have a professional work on the areas if you think they are tight. Even if you don’t think they’re tight, do it anyway; you might be surprised by how tight they actually are.