In this post we look at why your hamstring gets tight when you run and why stretching doesn’t address the fundamental issue.
You’re out for a run and feeling good so you decide to lift the pace. After a few minutes your hamstring tightens up. You stretch it out but the sensation lingers and now it seems to be a feature of every run.
Not only that but this tightness seems to be spreading. What’s going on?
We’re going to explain the reasons behind this and show how muscle tightness can lead to wider issues if it’s not properly understood.
Muscular system readiness score
To begin, let’s give your muscular system a readiness score. This score represents its current ability to help you run.
If it was ready to go with no underlying issues that number would be 100.
The very fact you’re reading this suggests it’s not quite that, but let’s wipe the slate clean and start fresh.
We’re going to use a story and your readiness score to explore the inside view of your muscular system.
This will explain why a seemingly random event is not so random after all.
Training for your big event
Like many people perhaps you enter events every now and again to maintain your motivation and gain a sense of accomplishment.
Also like a lot of people, your training for these bigger tests can become a little haphazard as life gets in the way.
No matter, you’re not trying to win the thing. You just want to get round in a decent time and feel good about doing so.
In order for you to keep that number sitting at 100 however, you’ll need to challenge your muscular system either at its current capabilities or just a little bit below.
You’ll also need to leave enough time between each run to allow for recovery and get both adequate sleep and nutrition.
Training for your latest challenge, a half marathon, is going well. You’ve got to 8 miles without issues and you’re feeling strong.
On your last long run however you had a ‘Rocky moment’ and increased your speed on the home stretch. You felt your right hamstring tighten after a few minutes of this quicker pace.
Unbeknown to you, that increase in pace introduced a little too much force into the muscles of your lower leg. A force that they were not able to cope with.
The tightness in your hamstring therefore was your central nervous system’s (CNS) attempt to compensate for the muscles that were overloaded.
We’re going to have to knock an arbitrary 10 points off the arbitrary 100.
You’re down to 90 but don’t worry that’s still a big number.
Remember this bit of the story however as it will be significant.
It wasn’t the iceberg that sunk the Titanic so fast
The reason the Titanic sunk so quickly wasn’t due to the size of the iceberg it hit, but rather substandard rivets.
Apparently the ship builders Harland and Wolff were struggling to find enough high quality rivets as they were building 3 huge ships at the same time.
After much discussion they opted for lesser quality versions at the bow and stern of the ship, where the stresses were supposed to be lower.
Like the Titanic, you haven’t hit the iceberg yet but you now have a vulnerability.
The tightness in your muscular system is spreading
On your subsequent runs things are not quite what they were before. The tightness in your hamstring on the right side seems to be a consistent feature and now you’re also developing a tightness around the opposite hip.
You manage this with a few stretches and push on. Your muscular system readiness score is taking a hit with each run however, like a thread that’s beginning to unwind. We’ll mark it at 80.
The week before your 12 miler you have a stressful week at work and as a result your alcohol consumption goes up a little more than usual. When alcohol consumption goes up, sleep quality goes down.
This impacts a number of systems in your body. The most important of these from our point of view is your ability to recover from training.
Saturday morning comes around and as planned you set out for your long run feeling righteous. After all you’ve had a difficult week and going out for your long run feels like the right thing to do to get yourself back on track.
Your muscular system readiness score sits at 70 after a week of inadequate sleep.
You’re blissfully unaware of the situation however. You stretch the life out of those tight muscles before you start and you feel limber.
Your score is now down to 60.
Stretching and massage only address the symptom
Whilst stretching may relieve tension in your muscles, it has been shown to reduce performance. That tension is there for a reason. Remember it was your Rocky moment that set this series of events in motion.
Reducing muscle tension is treating the symptom at best. If it comes back you’re fortunate. If it doesn’t, you can bet your CNS has just ramped up tension somewhere else in an attempt to maintain control of your joints
Now even with a score of 60 you can complete your scheduled 12 miles.
It doesn’t feel good however. The tight things have tightened up even more by the end of the run and you now have an ache in one of your knees.
You’re thankful you have two weeks to rest, stretch and perhaps take a massage or two to get ready for the big day.
Your muscular system readiness score is now at 50.
You’ve hit the iceberg and you’re taking on water
Notice however that it doesn’t really feel like that. The band is playing on and everybody is enjoying dinner.
On paper you’ve done the majority of your training. By many indicators you should be ready for your half marathon.
The picture on the inside is very different however. Your CNS is having to compensate around multiple muscles that have been overloaded in the course of the past few weeks.
Massage may make things feel a bit better but again you are addressing symptoms. It won’t get those overloaded muscles working again.
Come the day of your half marathon you are nowhere near as prepared as you think you are.
Whether you make it around or not is one thing. Enjoying the experience, producing a good performance and actually feeling good afterwards is quite another.
The moral of this story
The purpose of this story is not to stop you from setting yourself new challenges. It’s to help you go about achieving them in a way that’s less costly to your muscular system and therefore your joints in the long term.
If you recognise that tension in your muscular system is there for a reason and a reliable indication you’ve over done it, you’re well on your way to preventing this cascade of events.
Being able to assess for and address the muscular weakness that is at the heart of these issues is the next step and is covered in this post.
We always think the iceberg caused the problem, rarely do we trace the event back to the choice of rivets.