When training the muscles of our thighs, athletes tend to naturally focus on the power houses of the quadriceps…the force behind the kick that drives us forward with each step. It’s easy to target the quadriceps in both our strengthening and stretching exercises (squats anyone?) and if the knee position is aligned, these muscles tend to stay pretty healthy. While the hamstrings receive less attention, they can significantly impact the action of the quadriceps and the integrity of our stride. Comprised of three muscle sections, the hamstrings are a complex muscle group that takes care of both flexing the knee and extending the hip. Running places special demands on these muscles as they contract to counteract the forceful movement of the quadriceps. The action of the hamstrings controls this “fall” of the running movement by pulling the leg back into position and extending the hip to push off for the next step. As a result, the hamstrings are often both underdeveloped in proportion to the strength of the quadriceps, as well as tight due to the constant contraction and potential misalignment demanded by the sport. These imbalances can impact knee and low back stability and pain, as well as reduce core strength and integrity, so focusing on both stretching and strengthening these muscles after your next run can improve your strength and endurance over time.
Fortunately, training the hamstrings doesn’t require any special equipment and is an easy addition to your home workouts or post run routine. Many classic yoga postures specifically strengthen and lengthen these muscles and can be easily adapted to target each of the sections of the hamstring.
Part I, Yoga for Runners, Strengthening the Hamstrings
The action of the hamstring decelerates the powerful action of the quadriceps as it drives the runner forward. As gravity naturally assists this action in happening, and as we tend to naturally target quadriceps in our leg strengthening routines, the hamstrings are frequently underdeveloped, which results in a reduction in power for the push off of each stride, as well as a reduction in the integrity of support provided to the hips, knees, and low back. Simple strengthening postures can address this imbalance and improve power, core integrity, and knee health.
Standing Bow (Dancer): Standing on your left leg, take hold of the inside of your right foot. Bring the right knee down and in line with the left. Kick the right leg back strongly into your right hand, causing the leg to extend and lift behind the hip as you reach the left hand and shoulder forward. Hold for five or more breaths concentrating on lowering the right hip and belly, raising the right leg behind, and lifting and opening the chest to the right. Repeat on the other side. Opens quads and hip flexors, strengthens hip extensors and knee flexors.
Bridge/Wheel: Lying face up on the floor, keep your heels on the floor and bring them close to your bottom with knees lifting toward the ceiling about six inches apart. Press down into your heels to lift your bottom up as high as you can. Hold at the top. For wheel, bring hands overhead fingertips pointing towards the shoulders. Lift the upper body using the strength of the arms, keeping elbows in line with the shoulders and wrists. You can increase the difficulty by alternating raising one leg. Increases knee flexion and hip extension, supporting healthy knee alignment.
Warrior Three: Begin by standing with your arms overhead. Hands can be together or at shoulder distance. Stepping forward on your right foot, point your left toes, extending your left leg behind you. Lower your upper body and lift your left leg until each is parallel to the floor. Hold for five breaths focusing on lifting the left leg higher and dropping the left hip to parallel. Repeat on the right. This strengthens the hip extensors, increasing the power of your run and counterbalancing the quads. You can also move from Warrior Three to Standing Split, by bending your standing leg slightly as you reach down, then work to straighten each leg towards a vertical split.
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.