Strength Exercises and Prevention of Hamstring Injuries for Runners

Monday March 16, 2015

Last year, I wrote about the importance of strength training for runners.  I thought I’d revisit that post and add to the discussion how that, and other simple techniques, can help prevent the dreaded hamstring strain.

So why should time strapped runners take a precious run day out for strength training?

  1. Muscle strength makes runners less injury prone. It  increases joint stability and reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries
  2. At rest, muscle burns more calories than fat– so a runner who drops to a lower percentage body fat becomes more efficient in using fuel sources.
  3. Efficiency leads to a runner being faster, having greater endurance and greater ability to recover more quickly.
  4. Running tends to lead to muscle imbalances because of the nature of certain muscles being overused and others being underutilized (This is the cause of most running injuries, including hamstrings)
  5. And the hard fact…after the age of 30, inactive adults lose 3 – 5 % of their muscle mass per decade.  If you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Strength, endurance, and proper stretching are vital components to avoiding injury and running strong.  Runners should devote at least two days per week to strength training with 48 to 72 hours between days to recover.  Best to devote time to 3 – 4 full body exercises with a focus on core endurance.  Learn proper technique and focus on full body exercises – squats, planks, deadlifts, chin ups, push-ups.  Have a rest or recovery run day after a heavy lift day. And be sure to incorporate a daily stretching routine specific to correcting running imbalances.

Decrease Hamstring Tightness/ Prevent Hamstring Injury:

One of the most common and recurrent injuries that sidelines runners is the proximal hamstring strain.  The mistake lots of runners make is treating it with overstretching the hamstrings, which tears at the attachment site under the glutes.  In most cases runners’ hamstrings are tight, but not short.  Runners’ hamstrings are relatively weak compared to their powerful hip flexors which cause the pelvis to rotate forward and pull the hamstrings excessively long,  rendering them weak and injury prone.  In addition, hip stabilizers are relatively weak compared with the tight, strong hip flexors (also making the IT band prone to injury).


Here are 10 ways to prevent or address runner’s hamstring strain:

  1. Stretch and/or roll your quads and hip flexors.
  2. Stretch your hamstrings lying on your back (standing hamstring stretch with tight hamstrings can lead to back injury and doesn’t address the forward pelvis in runners).
  3. Stretch the low back with double knees to chest stretching.
  4. Strengthen core muscles (see sample work out below)
  5. Strengthen hamstring muscles with leg curls (use little or no weight at first. Focus on moving through full range of motion.
  6. Ice the attachment site immediately after any exercise for 15 – 20 min
  7. Cross train with stair climber or swimming to keep cardio up.  Stair climbing uses a smaller stride so may not bother an otherwise irritated hamstring.
  8. Massage therapy – relaxes tight muscles, improves flexibility, improves circulation and range of motion.
  9. Visit MD if pain is persistent,  if you are limping or have any bruising
  10. Personal training or physical therapy to assist healing and work on correcting muscle weaknesses or imbalances.

To stay in balance and prevent injury here is a sample Runner’s Gym Strength Program:  Chose 3 -4 total body exercises, being sure to work front, back, and sides of body – Core engaged on all activities. Do routine as a circui, with two laps on track at tempo, followed by set of each exercise (12-15 repetitions / set) for a total of 3 sets:

  1. Squat to Row
    1. Stand 2 feet from cable row machine (weight should be challenging but controllable) or resistance bands
    2. Squat, holding cable handles with arm extended
    3. Return to stand, pull hands toward diaphragm
  2. Wood Chop
    1. Feet shoulder width apart
    2. Hold 5 – 8 lb medicine ball (or dumbbell) at head height over one shoulder
    3. Squat down and lower ball to opposite hip
    4. Return to stand and ball over shoulder
  3. Lateral side steps (Targets: Abductors, glutes, hamstrings, and quads)
    1. With your feet hip-width apart, place the resistance band around your lower legs so that it’s taut and won’t slide down.
    2. Sit back into a half squat, your hips pushed backward, your knees slightly bent.
    3. Step out to one side, pulling the resistance band tight. Return to start and repeat 15 to 20 times before switching sides.
  4.  Bridge with Hamstring Curls on a Swiss Ball
    1. Lying on back, put feet and calves on Swiss ball
    2. Lift hips to bridge position
    3. Bend knees, holding ball with feet and pulling ball toward glutes

Other ideas –

  • plyometric jump squats – builds power for end of race
  • Bird Dogs – balance, core stability, and back strength
  • Single Leg Dead Lift – hip stability, balance, core endurance
  • Single Leg Squats – balance, flexibility, and strength
  • Yoga style Down Dog – strength and flexibility with reciprocal inhibition

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask a UNC Wellness Center Personal Trainer for guidance or to help you build an individualized program.  UNC’s morning run club in NW Cary on Wednesdays at 9:30 am and Fridays at 7:30 am incorporates dynamic stretching and core stabilization as part of the work out.  Come join us and get a fun social run, while improving your stability.

By: Susan Kroll, MS, PT, CSCI, Physical Therapist/Personal Trainer