The hamstrings are a key muscle group when it comes to running.
While they flex the knee (lift the heel up and back) and aid in extending the hip (pull the thigh backwards) one of their key roles is to act as a stabilising muscle while the much larger Gluteus Maximus (bum muscle) goes about its job of extending the hip backwards and propelling you forwards. However, if the gluteus maximus isn’t firing properly, or is weak, a process known as synergistic dominance can raise it’s ugly head.
Whenever a joint moves (in our example above, the hip joint extending) there is a muscle at work called the prime mover, in hip extension it is the gluteus maximus. As the name of this process suggests the prime mover is the muscle that is primarily responsible for moving the joint. In conjunction with the prime mover there is a group of stabilising muscles known as the synergists, in this case the hamstring muscles and the erector spinae (back muscles). Synergistic dominance is a process whereby the prime mover is weak or inhibited and so in order to move the leg effectively the stabilizer muscles take up the slack and start to do more work. This is a clever process, the body compensating in order to maintain effective movement, but it is a process that will probably lead to injury.
In our example the hamstrings and erector spinae will be placed under more load in order to help extend the hip, this extra load can lead to fatigue, tight muscles, altered joint mechanics in the hip and can make the hamstrings, hip and back extensors more susceptible to injury. Sound familiar?
A weak Gluteus maximus often comes about from long periods of sitting, whether it is due to your job, driving or chilling out on the couch, over time they can lose their strength. You then go for a run and expect those same muscles to fire up and work how they are supposed to but they simply don’t have the physical capacity to produce the strength they need to.
An inhibited Gluteus Maximus occurs when its opposing muscle becomes overactive, short and tight, in this case the hip flexor muscles, in particular Rectus Femoris (one of the quads) and the Psoas.
In order to fire up the glutes and get them strong again you need to do a strengthening exercise. The perfect exercise for doing just this is the Cook Hip Lift.
The great thing about the cook hip lift is that it asks your gluteus maximus to fire up and raise the hip while at the same time requiring your hip flexors on the opposite side to functionally lengthen. This is exactly the process that you require when you are running. The tennis ball is there to ensure that you keep the pelvis anteriorly rotated (keep you leg pulled in towards your stomach) as you raise the hips from the floor.
Simply raise your hips to the top position, hold for the count of two and then lower back to the start position smoothly for the count of four. Twelve repetitions, then change legs, three sets of twelve repetitions on each leg. Don’t let the tennis ball fall!
Both the psoas and rectus femoris require stretching on a regular basis as they are the primary muscles responsible for raising the knees up during running.
Due to the repetitive contractions that they undertake during a run they require stretching or they will begin to shorten, will limit hip extension and will inhibit the glue max. The stretches are best performed at the end of a run especially but on a regular basis (daily) regardless of whether you have run or not.
Hold the stretch for a minute ensuring there is tension in the muscle at all times, try to tuck your bottom underneath yourself, this ensures the origin of the muscle is as far away from the insertion point as possible. In both stretches ensure you have some padded protection underneath the knee on the ground. Hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds and repeat up to three times if you wish. Foam rolling the quads and hip flexors will also help to lessen tension in the muscles.
Enjoy your running…