The NFL funds research on hamstring strains for one simple reason: they are the number-one muscle tendon injury in the sport, accounting for more than 1,700 reported incidences between 1989 and 1998. Although most athletes return to their sports three to four weeks after the injury, one-third will re-injure their hamstrings within a year, according to a 2010 study published in The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy.
Hamstring injuries frequently occur for a few preventable reasons: strength imbalances and improper form. Athletes most often injure hamstrings when running close to or at their max speed, says Bryan Heiderscheit, lead author of the 2010 study, and an Associate Professor in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation. “As your speed increases and you start to lengthen your stride, you put greater loads on the hamstring muscles,” Heiderscheit says. That load is greatest right before your lead foot touches the ground, making that moment ripe for a rip.
How to prevent it:
The number one way to prevent straining a hamstring is to address any possible muscular weakness through strength exercises and neuromuscular training. Heiderscheit recommends Nordic Curls, standing deadlifts, and exercise ball curls. (See below for more information on how to perform these exercises.)
But hamstring strength is only part of the puzzle. That muscle’s strength relative to quad strength also plays an important role in injury prevention. A 2009 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that sprinters are 17 times more prone to hamstring strains when their quad muscles were more than twice as strong as their hamstrings. Ideally, the muscles would be equal in strength, says Heiderscheit, but on average males have hamstrings that are about 63 percent as strong as their quads, while females hamstrings are 65 percent as strong. So what does all of this mean? Don’t skimp on hamstring strengthening.
Finally, it’s important for runners, in particular, to have someone check their form to make sure it doesn’t put them at risk for injury. “It’s helpful to get evaluated by a physical therapist or movement specialist to get feedback on timing, posture, and positioning to make sure the hamstrings aren’t doing the majority of the work,” Heiderscheit says.
3 Hamstring Strengthening Exercises
Hamstring exercises that strengthen the muscle while lengthening it at the same time (known as eccentric exercises), are thought to help protect hamstrings from injury, possibly by increasing the muscle’s ability to offset the quads’ concentric (strengthening while shortening) action. Here are three to try:
Kneel with both knees on the ground and tuck your heels under a couch, or have a friend hold them down. Then slowly lower yourself to the floor without bending at the hips using your hands to catch you when your hamstrings can no longer do the work. Push yourself up to the starting position and repeat.
Bend forward at your hips, touch your hands to the floor, then stand back up. You can add weight if you like, or stand on one foot to do one leg at a time.
Exercise Ball Hamstring Curls
Lay on your back with an exercise ball under your feet. Bend your knees and pull the ball toward your hips, then extend your legs and repeat.