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Feeling the strain of tight hamstrings? You’re not alone. You might think it’s a result of sudden overexertion, but experts say there’s more to it: The best way to fix tight hamstrings is to avoid them in the first place, consistently tend to them before they start to bug you by incorporating a whole body approach to stretching and self-myofascial release.
“Training without foam rolling, stretching, or not properly warming up and cooling down can factor into tightness and stiffness, and eventually you could pull something or hurt yourself,” said Akin Akman, the co-founder and chief fitness officer at NYC-based studio and on-demand platform AARMY.
“People who compete in triathlon usually train a lot, so it’s important to build pliability and take care of your entire body, as well as going to a physical therapist for anything you might have missed,” he said. “It’s like how Tom Brady says that as a football player in a contact sport, he needs to keep all of his muscles long and lean so if he does get a hit, his whole body can absorb it—instead of one area breaking down.”
In that vein, Akman says that pliability is something you should be working on daily and keeping front of mind for all of your training sessions. Below are his five top fixes and our best resources on how to accomplish each.
Tight Hamstring Fix #1: Foam Roller
What: Roll specific areas of your body over a compressed foam cylinder to help release tension in the muscles, relieve soreness, and improve flexibility and range of motion.
Why: Integrating foam rolling into your trianing can also improve your performance and longevity drastically. Akman adds that foam rolling helps to stabilize the body, keep it mobile, avoid burnout, and strengthen muscles for your swim and run.
When: Akman recommends foam rolling before running and swimming.
Caveat: Only target dense areas of muscle tissue (hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, etc.) and avoid areas like the abdomen, lower back, chest, and neck. If you have conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, advanced diabetes, or osteoporosis, then foam rolling is likely not for you, so check with a trusted health professional before implementing it into your routine.
These articles offer extra insight into getting started with foam rolling:
RELATED: Which Foam Roller Should You Use?
Tight Hamstring Fix #2: Dynamic Stretching
What: A movement-based dynamic stretch, as opposed to holding the position in a static stretch.
Why: Like foam rolling, dynamic stretching encourages mobility, strength and pliability.
Caveat: None! Just be sure you follow a routine and do the movements with intention—don’t rush through it.
RELATED: Dynamic Vs. Static Stretching
Tight Hamstring Fix #3: Mixing Up Runs
What: Running on a softer surface or training on a treadmill that absorbs the impact.
Why: Akman points out that especially if you live in a city, you’re likely running on uneven hard concrete surfaces, so it’s important to be aware of the slant, the impact, how you’re running, and how that’s affecting your body. Integrating some training on different surfaces, instead of constantly putting the body under high-impact pressure, can help build endurance too.
When: Akman recommends training on the surface you’ll be competing on, so your body is familiar with it. That said, if you’re training on those surfaces and your hamstrings are getting tight and inflamed, that’s a good time to move to lower impact surfaces or lower impact movements like cycling inside or running on a soft track (just be sure to change directions regularly around the track!).
Caveat: Akman warns against overly relying on training indoors or on treadmills as it’s no replacement for outdoor runs.
Tight Hamstring Fix #4: Cross Training
What: Break up your tri training with things like low-impact indoor cycling or strength and conditioning classes to encourage overall muscle pliability.
Why: To build endurance and strength. “There’s a lot of things that you can do inside, strength-wise, that can really benefit your run, swim and ride,” Akman said. “There are ways to really train your body to absorb impact.”
When: Akman says this depends on your goals. “Cross training should strengthen the muscles you will use for swimming, running, and biking,” he said. “It should prepare you for the impact on the terrain.”
Caveat: Again, Akman recommends that indoor cycling doesn’t replace training outdoors. “I can build your endurance in a cycling class, but it doesn’t necessarily build up those same muscles,” he warned.
Tight Hamstring Fix #5: Massage
What: Rubbing and kneading the muscles, whether with your hands or using a static or percussive device for self-myofascial release.
Why: “It’s about really checking in and taking care of your whole body; from feet to shins and calves, all the way up to the shoulders,” Akman said. He said it’s important to remember that a tight feeling doesn’t necessarily mean that that one particular muscle is tight. If your lower back is tight, it might be because of your hamstrings. Or if your hamstrings are tight, it might be affecting your knees. For this reason, it’s integral to roll or massage out everywhere. And don’t forget to roll out your foot on a lacrosse ball to work out that plantar fascia too.
When: Be preventative. Don’t just wait to get bodywork done—whether it’s on yourself or from an expert. When you start to feel tightness or soreness, then you should already be working that spot. Don’t push through the pain.
Caveat: Massage or self-myofascial release works best as preventative maintenance. If you think you have an injury or an acute issue, then see a physical therapist.
Akman says it’s actually ideal to see a PT regularly, not just when something’s wrong. “It should be ongoing, particularly if you notice you don’t have the same range of motion anymore. You need to take care of yourself if you want to correct and strengthen.”