5 Ways You Can Avoid a Hamstring Injury


Hamstring injuries vary in severity, from small (grade 1) tears that require rest and rehabilitation, to severe (grade 3) tears that can require surgery to repair. Either way, Matzkin says you might be looking at several months before you can get back to your usual activities, and a few more months to reach the point where you no longer notice the injury when you move. “It takes a long time for it to completely resolve,” she says.

Once you hurt a hamstring, you may be in for more trouble down the road. “One of the most significant risk factors for a hamstring injury is a previous hamstring injury,” Matzkin says.

Even if you don’t suffer a traumatic injury, hamstrings can factor into back pain. Because they attach high on the back of the leg, tight hamstrings tend to pull the pelvis out of line. “That can put a lot of strain on the low back,” says Jill Henderzahs-Mason, a physical wellness therapist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Conversely low-back problems also can put stress on the hamstrings, causing them to get tighter. “It’s a sort of chicken-or-the-egg sort of situation,” she says.

While you can’t eliminate all risk of hamstring injuries, there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself. Following the right fitness routine and practicing a little moderation, it’s possible to keep your hamstrings healthy, functioning and pain-free.

1. Always do a warmup

When you’re young, you might get away with walking out onto the tennis court a few minutes before a match and just going at it. But for an older athlete with stiffer muscles, going from zero to 60 is an easy way to get a hamstring injury. That’s why you should devote at least a few minutes to a warmup routine, in which you do a less intense version of some of the athletic movements you’ll be performing. “It’s really important to take our joints through their full range of motion, and really kind of gently, in a controlled fashion,” Henderzahs-Mason says. “You want to lengthen the muscles, so they’re prepared for the activity and don’t receive a shock.” She also suggests a hamstring-specific movement that she calls the tin soldier, in which you march and gently swing your lead leg and the opposite arm at the same time.

2. Make stretching a part of your routine

Getting tighter with age isn’t necessarily inevitable, according to the experts. “Somebody who practices yoga, for example, might have the same flexibility at age 70 as they did at their 20s,” sports medicine expert Dr. Jamil Neme, MD, an assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine explains. After your muscles are warm from playing a sport or doing a fitness workout, the Mayo Clinic’s website suggests spending a little time on stretching your range of motion. For the hamstrings, Mayo suggests this stretch, which you lie on the floor and lift one slightly-bent leg toward the ceiling, until you feel a stretch, and then hold it for 30 seconds before switching legs and repeating the move. Denise Austin also suggests a hamstring stretch to improve knee mobility. You also want to stretch other muscles such as the hip flexors and quadriceps in the front of your thighs, since tightness in those places can affect your hamstrings, according to Henderzahs-Mason. For additional stretching ideas, AARP has videos available that can help including “the world’s best stretch,” and 10-minute stretch and toning tutorials led by Austin and another led by Kathy Smith.

3. Get stronger

Henderzahs-Mason says it’s also important to spend a few minutes two or three times a week on strengthening both the hamstrings and other supporting muscles. “The core is really important, because if we don’t have a good stable core for those muscles in the lower body, that’s when they start tending to have dysfunction as well,” she says. “They start getting tight to help compensate.” She recommends bodyweight exercises such as squats and lungs, as well as single-leg bridges for core, glute and hamstring strength. Be sure to master the movements and develop good form before increasing the intensity or adding resistance, she says.

4. Increase your activity carefully and gradually

If you take up jogging and a few weeks later impulsively decide to enter a 5K race, you could be asking for trouble. Getting out on the basketball court after a long layoff and trying to pull off one of your old moves also might leave you limping. “Anytime you do something beyond your normal functional level or try to jump back in, you’re at risk,” says Neme. “The injury most often happens with a quick stride — it just pulls that hamstring longer than it’s used to going.” With an unfamiliar activity or one you haven’t done for a while, it’s smarter to ease in. “Hold back to make sure you have good form at a slower place,” he says. “Then gradually increase the intensity and duration of your activity.”

5. Know when to stop

Even if you’re the competitive type, avoid pushing yourself to play a sport to the point of exhaustion. Fatigue will cause your body mechanics to suffer, making you more vulnerable to injury. “If you’ve been playing tennis for two hours and you’re feeling tired, that might be a good time to say, ‘I’m done,'” Matzkin says.

It’s also good to watch out for warning signs, such as hamstring soreness, that indicate something might not be right, and to consider going to a physical therapist for a consultation. “Pain means something is wrong,” Henderzahs-Mason says. “Whether it’s just that you’re doing some movement incorrectly, or something else is going on with your hamstring that’s more critical, it needs to be attended to.”

Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jonesand websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

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