Hamstring muscle injuries are extremely common among athletes.
They cause significant loss of training and competition time and have a high probability (between 12% and 31%) to recur.
A whopping 37% of all reported muscular injuries in soccer are hamstring injuries, with the vast majority taking place in non-contact situations. In addition to soccer, hamstring injuries often happen in sports where high speed sprinting and kicking are frequently performed. These include football, Australian football, rugby, and track and field.
Regardless of your sport, without adequate physical preparation, the chance of straining your hamstring remains high during games and practices. With that in mind, here are four ways any athlete can reduce the risk and severity of hamstring injuries.
1. Strengthen the Hamstrings With a Variety of Movements
A few sets of Lying Leg Curls at the end of your workout won’t cut it for building strong, injury-resistant hamstrings. You need better programming and more variety to optimally strengthen your hamstrings (and the other muscles of your posterior chain).
Some of the best strength exercises for the hamstrings include:
- Romanian Deadlifts (unilateral and bilateral variations)
- Back Extensions (unilateral and bilateral variations)
- Kettlebell Swings (band resisted to overload the eccentric part for stronger athletes)
I also love two bodyweight movements—Nordic Curls and Valslide Leg Curls—for targeting the backside of your leg.
I have witnessed only a handful of athletes in person who could perform Nordic Curls without using their hands for assistance on the way up. It takes tremendous posterior chain strength to curl your body up from the bottom position. Since most athletes will find true concentric Nordic Curls impossible to execute, focus on controlling the eccentric for 3-5 seconds, after which you push yourself back up. This video shows you how to perform the movement.
Valslide Leg Curls are another favorite hamstring builder of mine. The variation you see in the video below is a Band-Resisted One-Leg Valslide Leg Curl, and it’s one of the hardest hamstring exercises you can do. Beginners can start with the traditional version.
2. Build Up to Long-Distance Speed Work Over Time
We have all seen 100-meter sprinters on TV blow out their hamstring at or near maximal speed. Sprinting at high velocities subjects the hamstrings to immense stress which can lead to muscle strains.
To prevent that from happening, you don’t want to jump right into maximal speed work over longer distances. If the best sprinters in the world are not immune to hamstring injuries during max effort running, what makes you think you’d be an exception?
With my hockey players, we use 10-meter sprints during the early parts of the offseason to allow their bodies to get used to the high forces that occur during sprinting. As the summer progresses, we gradually increase distance to 20 meters, then 30 meters (and beyond, if necessary). This short-to-long approach to maximal sprint work is one of the reasons why hamstring pulls are extremely rare among my athletes.
3. Perform Change-of-Direction Drills
Athletes in field sports rarely perform all-out sprints for long distances in a completely straight line. Most game actions require fast cuts or turns where a rapid deceleration is followed by powerful first few steps to take possession of the ball, or to create open space for yourself or your teammates.
Thus, it makes sense to prepare your body for these typical game actions by replicating them in your speed and conditioning sessions. Your imagination is the only limit here, so use any type of cone drill, agility exercise or shuttle run variation with multiple short changes of direction to mimic what happens on game day.
With any of these drills, don’t just think about changing directions at your own pace. Focus on quickly bringing your body to a dead stop, and immediately restarting movement in the direction you want to go. You wouldn’t perform a casual cut or turn in a game situation, so why would you do so in training? Apply maximal effort to improve your change-of-direction speed, hone basic athletic movement, and condition your hamstrings to withstand the demands of your sport.
4. Manage Eccentric Stress
Since eccentric training has been identified as one of the primary ways to reduce the incidence of hamstring injuries, this last tip may sound contradictory. However, too much eccentric overloading, especially with athletes who already have suffered previous hamstring injuries, may actually contribute to the problem rather than hinder it.
Coaches and athletes should pay attention to how much direct and isolated hamstring training they implement. Controlling the intensity, frequency and volume of hamstring stress in and out of the weight room plays a key role in the management of repeat hamstring strains.
Especially athletes competing in sports where sprinting on a flat ground isn’t part of their competition activities (which also means it’s not a must-do activity outside of competition)—like hockey players, figure skaters or skiers—should consider the risk-to-benefit ratio of high-velocity, flat-ground running. They would receive similar benefits by sprinting up a hill or performing resisted sprints with a sled while notably decreasing the risk of hamstring pulls.
Liu, H et al. “Injury rate, mechanism, and risk factors of hamstring strain injuries in sports: A review of the literature.” Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2012 Sep; 1(2):92-101.
Ahmad, CS et al. “Evaluation and Management of Hamstring Injuries.” American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2013 Dec; 41(12):2933-2947.
Ernlund, L & de Almeida Vieira, L. “Hamstring injuries: update article.” Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia. 2017 Jun-Jul; 52(4):373–382.
Photo Credit: iStock/Bojan89