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University of Nebraska's sprints coach prevents hamstring injuries by working the right muscles and properly warming up.

By: Chad Zimmerman

Getting to the top of the T&F leader boards can be as simple as "out with the old, in with the new." Forward-thinking coaches like Matt Martin, sprints and hurdles coach for the University of Nebraska, continually seek to replace old track practices with innovative techniques that keep their athletes ahead of the competition. Properly executing such techniques can produce big results: the Husker track record is strong evidence.

Nebraska boasts uncommon dual supremacy. Both its men's and women's squads finished in the top 20 at the 2005 NCAA Outdoor Championships and earned top five national rankings.

Preventing injuries—hamstring strains in particular—is critical to the Huskers' success. "We believe many hamstring injuries come from imbalances within the core region—from the abdomen and lower back through the quads and hamstrings down to the backs of the knees," Martin explains. "Sometimes an imbalance in that area puts additional strain on the hamstring, resulting in an injury. So, the hamstring is not actually to blame for the problem."

Martin has seen runners of all shapes and sizes with hamstring strains; but he's noticed that sprinters are the most afflicted, because, he says, "sprints place the most stress on the hamstrings and surrounding muscle groups."

To reduce the number of these all-too-common, debilitating injuries, Martin implements a two-pronged prevention program: strength building exercises for smaller core-region muscle groups to correct imbalances, and a dynamic warm-up before practices and meets to properly prepare the body for activity. Martin provides drills for both parts of his program.

Preventing Imbalances
The running style and habits an athlete develops at a young age can lead to imbalances, but old school training techniques and neglected muscles also contribute. "Think of sprinting in terms of your femur rotating through your hip socket, and you'll see the need for all the muscles in the pelvic girdle to work in unison," Martin says. "We often find that the abductors, glutes and outer sides of the glutes are not developed.

"In the past, we probably neglected training those areas for track and field. We focused on the big muscles areas, doing the squats, hamstring curls and power cleans. Now, we make sure to build the smaller muscles in the core area along with the big muscle groups."

Exercises must be specific to correct a particular athlete's imbalance. Following are a few drills that can be used; however, only a trained professional can create a precise plan to remedy a specific imbalance. "I encourage athletes to seek an expert's opinion to root out imbalance issues," Martin says. "A physical therapist can dictate a training plan based on individual needs."

Back-Lying Hip Flexor Stretch
Lie on back on table, thighs halfway off

Pull both knees to chest, keeping low back flat against table

Keep one leg to chest by holding behind knee

Drop other leg back to table and bend to 90-degree angle

Hold position for 3 seconds

Perform 10 reps for each leg

Angry Cat Stretch
Start on hands and knees

Tuck chin in toward chest

Tighten stomach and arch back

Hold for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times

Perform 3-4 times per day

Mid-Back Stretch
Start on hands and knees

Drop butt toward ankles

Push chest toward floor

Reach arms forward as far as possible

Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 10 times

Perform 3-4 times per day

Hamstring Wall Stretch
Lie on back on floor

Place heel of one foot against wall

Extend opposite leg through doorway

Scoot butt toward wall to achieve stretch

Scoot closer to wall as muscle relaxes

Perform for 5 minutes on each side, twice per day

Bridging with Straight Leg Raise
Lie on back on floor with feet flat

Raise hips, keeping straight line from knees to shoulders

Lift one foot off floor and straighten leg

Hold for 5 seconds

Lower foot back to ground

Perform 10 reps per leg, once per day

Side-Lying/Leg with Outward Rotation
Lie on side on floor with knees bent

Place pillow between knees

Rotate top knee upward

Keep knee bent, pelvis and trunk stationary

Return to starting position, repeat 10 times per leg

Proper Preparation
Many athletes think the best way to loosen up is to stretch, stretch, stretch; but to properly warm up, stay injury-free and perform at your best, you have to do drills that take your body through its full range of motion. "Like many track and field programs these days, we use a dynamic warm-up," Martin says. "We do a lot of hurdle step-overs and step-throughs to motivate all the muscle areas throughout the core."

Performing hurdle drills, Martin's athletes maintain proper form by staying upright and not turning their torsos throughout the drill. Movement should come from the rotation of the hip socket, with the foot moving in a full circular motion.

Proper form prepares an athlete for competition and helps Martin detect muscle imbalances. "A foot turning in or out during the drills is a good warning sign of an imbalance," he says, "because muscles are being utilized in the wrong capacity. The runner is cheating himself by using overdeveloped muscles."

Hurdle Step-Overs
Place 8-10 hurdles one foot apart

Set each hurdle 30-33 inches high

Step over hurdles with high knee action

Do not rotate leg out

Move at walking pace, then at a skipping rhythmic pace

Perform 5 passes

Hurdle Over-Unders
Place 8-10 hurdles one foot apart

Alternate hurdle height between lowest and highest setting

Step over low hurdles

Step under and through high hurdles

Move at walking pace

Perform 5 passes

Hurdle Lateral Kick-Overs
Place 8-10 hurdles one foot apart

Set hurdles at middle height

Stand to side of hurdles on one leg

Kick the leg closer to hurdle over top of hurdle and then back

Move to next hurdle, repeat

Perform 5 passes for each leg

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock