Chronic Hamstring Injuries When Sprinting: How to Stay Fit

Medical personnel stretching out a sprinters hamstrings.

By Steven Pisano from Brooklyn, NY, USA (Bishop Loughlin Games - Armory - Track & Field) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it, chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting  are a potential problem that continue to frustrate coaches and athletes. 

You can seem to do everything correctly; stretching, warming up, strengthening exercises, and yet the hamstrings are an area that always seem particularly vulnerable.

The issue is that hamstring strains and tears are very common in power and speed dependent sports that require full exertion. 

The high intensity nature of the activity makes the hamstring muscles more susceptible to injury and they are a recurring problem for sprinters.

Hamstring injuries are so troubling because they can lead to extended absences from training and competition.

Prevention is always better than cure, but injuries do happen, and its hugely important that you have a well thought out rehabilitation POA (plan-of-action) when they arise. .

This article will be referring to chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting and the muscles of the hamstrings specifically, however many of the principles applied here can be used to reduce the risk of many injuries in general.

Article Overview
  • How the hamstrings work when sprinting.
  • Most common causes of chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting.
  • What to do if you sustain a hamstring injury.
  • What measures you can take to prevent chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting

About the Hamstrings

The hamstrings are actually a collective term that refers to a group of four muscles, rather than one large singular muscle that some people believe them to be.

The muscles that make up the hamstrings are the Semimembranosus (SM), the Semitendinosus (ST), the Biceps Femoris long head (BFlh) and Biceps Femoris short head (BFsh).

The four hamstring muscles are not identical and have differences in structure and function.

The SM, ST and BFlh are all biarticular muscles, which means they are two jointed muscles.

These muscles cross at the knee and the hip joint and are therefore involved in both knee and hip movements (required functions when sprinting).

This is possibly a reason for their vulnerability to injury. 

Pulled Hamstring

By BruceBlaus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Hamstrings Functionality During Sprinting 

During a sprint, the primary function of the hamstrings is to decelerate the lower leg in the sagittal plane.

During the swing phase of the stride cycle, the thigh is lowered.

The muscles within the hamstrings work eccentrically to prepare the limbs that need to support the weight of the body upon ground contact (when the foot strikes the ground).

The hamstrings store elastic energy, and once foot strike occurs, the hamstrings elongate across the hip and knee joints.

During the concentric contraction, the hamstrings help extend the hip.

The muscles of the hamstrings contain a high number of fast twitch muscle fibres. T

heir fast twitch nature means that they can produce a large amount of force.

When producing a high intrinsic force, tension is developed in the hamstrings.

This, combined with the extrinsic stretch that takes place during length changes is one of the reasons the muscle is so susceptible to injury.

Note: Due to the fast twitch muscle fibres, when strength training with the goal of muscle growth, the hamstrings react better to exercises performed with a heavy weight, low repetitions and a high number of sets.

Types of Hamstring Injuries

It’s important to know why chronic hamstring injuries occur when sprinting so that we can implement effective methods to help reduce the chances of them occurring. 

An injury to the hamstring muscles can be defined as a strain or tear within the muscle fibres, the muscle and or tendon, or the point at which the tendon is attached.

The type of injury that occurs most when performing sprints or heavy loaded activity are type 1 acute hamstring strains.

During a sprint, the point at where the muscles are most susceptible to injury is during the touchdown phase of the stride cycle, right before the point of foot contact with the ground.

The reason for this is due to the large amount of force that is being placed upon the muscle.

Factors That Can Cause Chronic Hamstring Injuries When Sprinting

 In many cases, chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting are a result of continuous faults made by an athlete or coach. 

Of course injury can be unforeseen but they are also commonly associated with various factors that, if addressed, can greatly reduce your risk of getting injured. 

As mentioned, for sprinters, the point of injury at the hamstrings usually occurs just before ground contact of the lead leg.

Despite the similar place at which many hamstring injuries occur, there are actually many different factors that could contribute as to why there was an injury.

It is important to know the ‘why’ if you want to take effective action into reducing the chances of the injury reoccurring and to implement better training strategies for the future.

Most hamstring injuries are a result of one or a combination of the following factors:

Fatigue Through Overtraining:

One of the most common causes of injury is fatigue brought on by overtraining.

Simply put, when the muscle is fatigued, it is more susceptible to injury as you can lose coordination of your muscles.

The muscles need to be activated to perform the required function.

If one muscle is firing but another is not, then it's more likely that an injury will occur.

Fatigue Through Schedule:

Fatigue brought on by training and competition schedules need to be considered.  

For example, if you have competitions scheduled 3 weeks in a row, then your training schedule needs to be adjusted.

During an event, a 100m sprinter may run in several races before making it to the final.

This can put a lot of stress on the hamstrings and can fatigue the muscles very quickly.

Therefore it is important to plan your training very carefully in the build up to a competition.

Previous Injury:

If you have previously injured your hamstring muscles then the chances of reinjury become higher.

This means you should place huge importance on recovering fully before attempting to train at a high intensity.

Do not rush back into training or competition.

During the early recovery phase is where you are most likely to re-injure!

Stretching, Mobility and Flexibility:

A lack of flexibility in the hamstrings and other posterior muscles of the trunk and legs are likely to lead to an injury.

You don't want to stretch the hamstrings too much, but if you have poor hamstring flexibility, then I suggest you make it a priority to fix the problem.

Be sure to perform all your stretches correctly as tightness in the hamstrings can easily lead to a strain.

It can be boring, and you may feel like skipping them, but the extra minutes saved through rushing your stretches is not worth the weeks or months out being unable train or compete. 

Hold your static stretches from 10-20 seconds. 

For explosive actions, the muscles need to exert a lot of force and be able to handle the pressure. Therefore you want to be mobile and flexible, but not to the extent of a gymnast. 

Usain Bolt pulls up in 100m final

Usain_Bolt2_London_2017 by Erik van Leeuwen

The three types of stretches we use are static, dynamic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)/ partner stretches. 

Some coaches may use one type more than another (or not at all). For me, I like all three, and get my athletes to perform each when necessary.

Note: PNF stretching requires the partner to place resistance upon the athlete. For this reason, myself, another coach or a more experienced athlete, partner with younger/less experienced athletes to perform this type for safety purposes.

Conditioning:

You need to make sure that you are well conditioned to perform the required activity and take on the demands if training.

Chronic hamstring injuries when sprinting are more likely to occur if you attempt a workload greater than what your body is prepared for.

Conditioning can be in the form of running, various sprint intervals, or any form of strength training.

It's important to make sure that during any conditioning training that you also seek out any muscle imbalances as this can also lead to hamstring injuries.

Cold Weather Conditions:

Cold weather conditions can be a big problem for athletes as the cold can lower muscle temperature and reduce blood flow.

When training and competing, it's important that you layer up if training in very cold conditions.

You need to keep yourself and your muscles warm!

This may mean going inside or putting on another layer of clothes during your rest periods.

Bad Sprinting Technique

If you have a poor sprinting technique chances are that sooner or later you will end up experiencing an injury.

Having a good technique will keep you balanced, and reduce the risk of njury,  as you'll able to distribute forces equally.

An issue with hamstring injuries connected to technique is often due to the athlete overstriding.

If an athlete tries hard to have a long stride length they can overstretch the hamstrings and end up straining or tearing the muscle.

NOTE: It's important that when coaches give cues to their athletes that they are clear and precise so that the athlete understands. Shouting longer stride or high knees are not effective cues.  

What to do If You Sustain a Hamstring Injury

After sustaining an injury it is always best to seek the advice of a medical expert.

If you have any pain or loss of function within the hamstring muscles you should stop the exercise or activity immediately.

Do not try and persist as you do not know the extent of the injury and are end more likely to make it worse.

Better to be safe and end terminate the training session. 

Signs and symptoms to look out for:

Bruising  -  Swelling  -  Immediate sharp pain  -  Muscle spasms  -  Loss of strength  -  Pain when moving 

If you sustain an injury to the hamstrings then it's important to act straight away.

Performing the P.R.I.C.E. principles can help:

Protect - protect the injured area by stopping the exercise or training and avoiding any further exercises that causes pain to the muscle.

Rest - do not train, or only train other muscles that do not affect the hamstrings.

Any activity that places stress or causes pain within the hamstrings should not be performed.

Ice - place ice on the hamstrings where there is pain or swelling for 10-15 minutes, every 2 hours, for the first 2-3 days.

This will help reduce the pain and swelling. Use an ice pack sleeve or a towel to wrap around the ice.

Never place the ice directly onto the skin.

Compression -  a compression wrap may help with the swelling

Elevation - elevation of the muscle encourages blood flow to help reduce the swelling.

Return to Activity

One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is returning to training too soon after injuring their hamstrings.

This is one of the main reasons that chronic hamstring injuries are such a problem for sprinters.

The hamstrings need time and rehabilitation to recover fully.

I get it, athletes are keen to return to training and often downplay any pain or discomfort that they are feeling.

On occasions I’ve had an athlete say they were fine, then 2 runs later they are struggling to walk.

You need to be patient and let the muscle recover. There is no way around this.

I recommend not doing any intense sprinting from 6-8 weeks after the point of no pain. This gives you plenty of time to introduce and implement recovery work to strengthen the hamstrings.

It may seem like a long time out, but I believe if the issue is taken care of properly the first time around, then it greatly reduces the risk of the same injury occurring again.  

Before beginning any speed work, you should be able to perform light runs without feeling any pain.

Even mild pain can be an indicator to stop.

 Dont ignore any symptoms!

It may not seem too bad, but working the muscle could prolong your rehabilitation.

Continuous treatment should be carried out during your return with the use of soft tissue massages, stages of static, dynamic and PNF stretching, muscle strengthening and finally sport specific movement.

Note for Coaches

It's important for coaches to be careful when it comes to recovery times even if the athlete has completed the rest prescribed by a health professional.

Remember, recovery times will often vary for different individuals and the demand placed on the hamstrings of an athlete are much greater than that of the average person.

Note for Athletes

A good way in determining your state of recovery is to simply compare how the previously injured hamstring feels compared to the uninjured one.

Look for whether the range of motion and the strength of the muscles are the same. Also look out for any major muscle imbalances that may have occurred. 

9 Tips on How to Prevent Hamstring Injuries

hamstring pain in training

If you put in a few precautionary measures then injuries become a lot less likely.

Implementing injury prevention strategies doesn't have to be difficult. 

Here are 9 tips on things you can do to prevent a hamstring injury:

  • Don’t rush your warm up or cool down. Complete all the exercises correctly.
  • Stretch before and after training. We mostly perform dynamic stretches during the warm up and static stretches during the cool down.  
  • Get regular deep tissue massages. If you are unable to get regular massages then purchase a foam roller and massage ball. They work great!  
  • During training, complete simultaneous eccentric-concentric exercises so that the hamstrings can cope with high forces during ground contact.
  • Wear appropriate clothing for the weather conditions. Keep warm in cold conditions. Thermal clothing is a great option.
  • Complete dynamic exercises as part of your warm up.
  • Consider the muscles above and below the hamstrings when strength training. Pay attention to your hip flexors, glutes and calves.
  • Address both knee flexion and hip extension when strengthening.
  • Correct any muscle imbalances.
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