Why do hamstrings get so commonly tight?
- Hamstrings are commonly tight in many people, not just in runners – because just sitting too much of the time means the hamstrings shorten and adapt to that contracted length.
What to do… Stand up more! If you have a desk job – stand, bend knees and fold forwards, with chest resting on thighs, gradually listing hips – do this several times a day.
2. Then there’s core strength. If your core strength is insufficient then the hamstrings will be trying to stabilise your pelvis, which is the job of the deeper abdominals and abductors!! This leads to over contraction of the hamstrings.
What to do… Make sure you’re doing regular, targeted core strengthening. One of my favourites is the toes taps, as this also builds coordination and pelvic strength (not suitable if you have tight hip flexors though). Watch my 5 favourite core exercises here.
3. If you’re a runner, then a certain amount of hamstring tension is useful because we want them to be strong and powerful – however, too much hamstring tightness is going to limit the motion of the pelvis, causing flexion in the spine and loss of core stabilisation! And the Numero Uno consideration for runners should be good posture, which is maintained with core strength.
What to do… Core strengthening, as above, plus hamstring lengthening…
Test and re-lengthen the hamstrings…
Hamstring test on back – lie flat on your back, draw one knee in to your chest and hold behind the thigh. Slowly start to straighten – the leg should go up to at least 70 degrees, with only a mild stretch. If you can feel more, or the leg doesn’t want to come that high, then there is some work to do!
- take this position every day – bend the knee and straighten the leg several times, gradually straightening the leg a little more each time.
- use a strap to help keep the leg up, relaxed for around 3 minutes.
- resist the strap by pushing the ball of your foot into it for 5 long breaths, then relax for 5. Repeat 3 times. (This resisting is eccentric contraction, and can also be useful in healing hamstring strains. Do not stretch the hamstrings when there is a strain!*)
Watch these strap exercises, plus more for the hamstrings, in this 17 minute video.
Watch the Tutorial
If you’re aware of tight hamstrings, then now is the time to start doing something about it! Watch a video tutorial of this content in the latest video in the Yoga Flow Runners Facebook group, here.
*If you have a hamstring strain or tear, don’t stretch it. Focus on eccentric contraction only, which I describe in the video tutorial.
In this video I also discuss how many runners are running ‘quad dominant’, meaning the quadriceps are over-powering the hamstrings, leaving the quads too tight and the hamstrings too weak. This will be the topic of focus in the next blogpost!
Originally this post was going to be on ankles in general – but that’s too broad a scope! And generally, if you have pain in your ankles, inside or outside, it’s more often than not originating in weakness or imbalance in the hips, so taking your focus there would be a great place to start. So, I’m focus here on the Achilles tendon.
A common area of complaint for runners, but also within other sports, Achilles tendonosis is inflammation and micro-tearing in the tendon, causing pain, heat and sometimes swelling. Often in runners it’s felt a the start of a run, but then eases as the body warms and the pain comes back afterwards.
Achilles tendonitis only refers to the inflammation, whereas tendonosis refers to the micro tears, that are usually the cause the pain. It’s caused by over-use, in runners this can usually be attributed to ‘too much, too soon’, or suddenly changing terrains or to minimal shoes.
However, from my experience of seeing clients/ students with this complaint, it’s often alongside another attributing factor: weakness or tension. Weakness, or lack of prior conditioning in the feet and Achilles, mean that the tendon gets overwhelmed, when suddenly asked to do so much work. Weakness in the foot arch, or flat foot, can also contribute. Conversely, arches that are too tight (perhaps from wearing heels), and tight calves, can also be responsible.
As always, we need strength and flexibility.
We need healthy, strong and active feet, ankles and calves before we start to increase our activity, such as running mileage, to cope effectively with the repetitive action. We also need full range of movement and flexibility here, as in running, this allows proper, efficient dropping of the heel and push-off.
Here are 5 things that we can do to help keep the Achilles healthy and functioning properly. If you currently have pain in the Achilles tendon, then rest from exercise for a little while, and begin working on releasing foot and calf tension, then gradually incorporate Achilles tendon conditioning.
1.Test the flexibility of your Achilles: sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent at 90 degrees, over your ankles. Slide forwards in the chair, so that the knees come past the ankles. If you cannot do this without the heels lifting, then the Achilles is too tight. Bear in mind that there may be a natural lack of mobility here that prevents a lot of ankle flexion, however the knees should still be able to pass the ankles in this exercise.
2. Increase/ maintain flexibility in the feet and ankles: using MFR balls, sitting over the heels with the toes tucked and releasing the toes and lifting the shins. Read the last blogpost on feet for the full description.
3. Strengthen the arches of the foot: In all the standing poses and balances this can be done by spreading your toes. Extra focus can be given here by standing on one foot, on a block, and repeatedly scrunching, or shortening the foot, and releasing.
4. Release tension in the calf muscles: Using a MFR ball on a block, roll it up and down the centre of the calf muscle, then along the lateral (outside) edge, then the medial (inside) edge for 3 -5 minutes on each leg. This can be done before your yoga practice. In your yoga practice, take extra time to lengthen the calves in Downward Facing Dog: keep lifting the hips, lift the heels, bend the knees, then keeping the knees bent start to drop the heels. Try the squat technique described in the previous blog post. Also, use a strap around the ball of the foot lying on your back, to bend the knee and push through the heel for 1-3 minutes.
5. How to help pre-condition the Achilles for greater use, ie. running or other activity?
Answer: a well-rounded dynamic Vinyasa yoga practice – there are so many ways in which the Achilles is gently used, strengthen and mobilised. Specifically though, standing Chair Lifts (which have many other benefits!) and a High Lunge: lift the back thigh and drop the heel. In my Yoga for Runners videos, I also teach a really effective knee-tap action that can be incorporated into a standing sequence – get them here :).
You can watch a video tutorial explaining these points, that I recorded live in my Facebook group: Yoga Flow Runners, come and join!
Our feet can tell us so much about the rest of our body, so before we get started, if you do have feet problems – it could well be originating elsewhere in the body, which is why a whole body yoga practice is so beneficial – and is why I promote yoga for runners so strongly. However, it’s also useful to occasionally focus in on one particular area and break it down (literally!).
All of these steps are going to help prevent Plantar Fasciitus, however if you’re currently suffering with Plantar Fasciitis, then you’ll need to take things a bit easier and listen to the medical advice you’ve been given. Rest is always beneficial but try some of these, starting gently and progressing if there’s no further or enhanced pain and irritation. Shoe support is also usually recommended when suffering with this, so again go easy and don’t start walking or running heaps barefoot but perhaps try the Tree pose barefoot and the other techniques softly.
Be barefoot as much as you can – I’m fortunate to have a job in which no shoes is expected, the reality for many of you will be that you have to wear shoes all day, which can lead to compression and weakening of the foot muscles. This is where your yoga practice becomes even more beneficial! Being barefoot strengthens the feet, as all the small and intricate muscles are recruited to do their job properly. All the standing and balancing poses help even further with this muscular recruitment and strengthening. TRY: Tree Pose – spread the toes to help lift the arch and ground down through the rest of the foot. Also great for reducing bunions!
Apply pressure to release tension in the soles – The plantar fascia is a thick band of fascia running along the sole of the foot, that can get really tight and difficult to stretch. For this reason it’s often more effective to use myofascial release (MFR) techniques to release accumulated tension. TRY: MFR balls – using a tennis ball or lacrosse ball, roll it up and down the sole of the foot for 3-5 minutes each day. Start gently and if you find a ‘good’ spot, stay with it.
Test and stretch the plantar fascia – once you’ve done the above MFR, you could try a gentle stretch for the soles. To test the flexibility of your plantar fascia: sit on a chair with your feet flat; reach down and lift your big toe only. It should easily lift about 30 degrees, with the ball of the foot still grounded. If not, the plantar fascia is too tight. Mobility here is key for runners, as efficient range here allows you to roll straight through the ball of the foot and push off. With inefficient mobility the push-off is cut short. TRY: Toe Breaker Pose – I tend not to call it that, but that is what it’s been nicknamed! Sit on your heels, lean forwards to tuck your toes under; gradually bring your weight back over the heels, possibly coming to sit tall and allowing the weight on the upper body and pelvis to drop into the soles of the feet and toes for 2-3 minutes. You can lean forwards to take some of the weight out.
Test your big toe strength – the big toe should provide the majority of stability in the foot, so should have a good amount of strength to it! TRY: Big Toe Isolation – Stay sitting in a chair with the feet flat, lifting the big toe only. This time though, as you lift the toe, resist! Try to keep the toe straight and hold this resistance for a couple of minutes to test and build strength.
Do regular Toe Yoga – Being at our furthest extremity and usually encased in shoes, the toes can get neglected 🙁 Give them some love and attention and focus on them a few minutes each day, either during your yoga practice, or additionally. TRY: Toe Yoga – sit on the floor with your back resting against a wall or sofa, have your legs out in front but bend your knees. With the heels down and toes up see if you can spread the toes enough to see a gap in between each one. Then stand up tall and focus on lifting each toe individually – it will get easier and is great for coordination!
See my video tutorial discussing these points by joining the Yoga Flow Runners Facebook group here.
Let me know your thoughts and progress below!
Strong vs. Flexible!
It’s so easy to want to get more and more flexible, either because we think we should, or because we’re fixated on achieving a certain pose. But being flexible does not equal healthy! In fact, we often hold our particular tensions in order to protect our joints. We need strength to provide stability for our joints, which is of primary importance over flexibility. Of course, most of us do need to increase our flexibility but in balance with strength and stability.
And for those who are naturally bendy, enjoy it and maintain it, whilst protecting your joints. Finding balance also means accepting the body you have and appreciating what it can and can’t do! Practise with consistency and dedication in a balanced way and we see improvements physically and mentally, but let’s try to practise yoga without fixation or attachment to a certain outcome – especially if it’s more what we think we need, as opposed to what we actually need to be healthy.