In part I of this series we talked about how to strengthen the hamstrings with yoga to improve your running. Read on for Part II as we discuss hamstring stretches.
As a complex muscle group comprised of three separate muscle segments, the hamstrings are particularly prone to imbalances that are impacted by our repetitive daily activities and postures. While it is not unusual for hamstrings to feel restricted, they are also, frequently, over-elongated as a response to the action of the quadriceps in our daily stride. A specific stretching program that targets each of the three muscle components of the hamstrings can help in addressing these imbalances, resulting in healthier movement patterns.
With three separate muscle segments, the flexibility of the hamstrings tends to mimic the foot strike of the runner and the action of our daily activities. My favorite approach to stretching the hamstrings addresses each segment of the muscle independently, allowing the athlete to focus on the areas that are specifically tight and potentially impacting the integrity of their stride.
Hand to Big Toe (variations): Lying on your back, lift your right leg, foot flexed, knee straight or very slightly soft. Take a strap around the ball or arch of the foot (a necktie will also work). Straighten your leg fully away from your body and slowly bring it towards the right shoulder, stopping when tension becomes uncomfortable. Hold for five breaths.
Next bring right hand to the right hip, holding the hip down (you can see me assisting my student in this action in the photo). Taking straps in the left hand, slowly bring the leg across the midline of the body in an upward movement towards the left shoulder. You should feel a deep stretch in the outside of your thigh.
Finally, bring the stretch into the inner thigh by taking the strap in the right hand and extending the leg towards the right side of the room.
Finish with Figure 4 to open the low back and hips. Laying in the preparation for bridge pose (above), bring right ankle onto left thigh, flexing the right foot. Press right knee away from your body, externally rotating the right thigh. You can take this deeper by bringing the left thigh closer using a strap or your grip behind your left thigh.
Repeat each stretch on the left side.
Finally, you can complete this mobility work by using a tennis ball to massage any areas of the hamstrings that were particularly restricted during the stretches. Begin by sitting on a tennis ball and using it to massage the muscle tissue surrounding the sit bone. If an area feels particularly tight, hold the tennis ball in that area, controlling how much weight you put into the ball through the strength in your arms. You can also use the same technique to massage deeper into the hamstrings, concentrating on the area that felt the tightest in the above stretches.
When the hamstrings are disproportionately lengthened and weak, it can lead to a reduction in the efficiency of athletic movements and knee alignment, as well as contributing to low back pain. Increasing the strength of this muscle group, while improving mobility across all segments of the hamstrings will reduce hip, knee, and low back pain, as well as improving the power of the posterior athletic chain, enhancing athletic performance in running, cycling, and other quadriceps driven activities. While these postures are specifically beneficial for runners, cyclists, and other athletes who experience heavy demands on the quadriceps and hip flexors will also benefit from this approach to hamstring health.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.