The HAMSTRING: the neglected mountain endurance machine

Winter mode is just around the corner and we are all excited to change gear, train differently, enjoy fresh powder instead of running downhill for 1000 meters!
Late November is a good time to focus on our bodies, assess where we are at after the summer/fall season, change and/or add some new training techniques, and hopefully inspired to take care of your precious body!

The goal of this article is to give some valuable insight on the hamstring muscle which plays an important role to our pleasure and performance in the mountains, especially moving uphill. Often overlooked, focus being more on the quadriceps, the gluteus group, the back extensors and the core muscles. Or we simply prioritize cardio training without thinking of our musculoskeletal imbalances and sport specific needs.

The hamstring is a posterior upper leg muscle, it has a tendency to be abused and overworked due to a multitude of factors. It’s vulnerable to trauma due to the anatomical arrangement whereby it crosses both the hip and knee, and due to the large leverage that acts through the hip joint during sports like skiing, running, hockey, and skinning uphill. It’s the number one injury in the athletic world and 50% of all hamstring injuries are recurring.

Musculoskeletal imbalances create tremendous tension and stress on the hamstring and is one of the prime factors why hamstring injuries are so frequent.

For example: weak or inhibited gluteus maximus- the large butt muscle, weak calf muscles, tight hip flexors and TFL (tensor fasciae latae), all creating a forward drop on the pelvis and putting tremendous tension on the lower back and the hamstring attachment site on the ischial tuberosity- the butt bone. Creating rigidity and weakness in the belly of the muscle and tension on the tendinous attachments. Placing it in a weak and vulnerable position for any sports.

The role of the hamstring
It’s the main torque provider for knee flexion, helps control tibial rotation (lower leg bone) during single leg stance while skiing and running for example, also a posterior knee stabilizer, hip extensor- active role in propulsion; the last phase of your ski turns, push off skinning uphill or running flat fast!

The hamstring is put into a high force load in the final swing / early phase of stance,back leg coming forward just before hitting the ground, especially when moving fast while skinning or running uphill. Overstriding is also stressful on the hamstring adding great lengthening force on it; the back leg is further away than the front leg.

The hamstring needs great range of motion in outer range (when hip & knees flex simultaneously), good length and elasticity (being stretch and bouncing back to it’s original length e.g: running, landing on the ground and pushing off – like a fall from a rope), stability that originates from pelvis and lumbar region, eccentric & concentric strength (see below for clarification), and great endurance capacity, it’s en endurance muscle not a weight lifter!

The reasons for suffering hamstring injuries are multifactorial. Very important and often overlooked the hamstring needs to be aerobically fit like your cardio, good resistance to fatigue, great endurance, and optimal elasticity. It’s not a power muscle like the hip flexors or the quadriceps, it’s not build to continuously generates high forces but has the long fiber type that likes to challenge the distance, maintain repetitive loads, especially when climbing uphill.

The hamstring, gluteus maximus and the calf muscles are the prime mover when going uphill – they are the  climbing muscles!

Squats and lunges do not isolate the hamstrings an they are very challenging exercises to perform with good techniques. Hamstrings specific exercises need to be part of our weekly routine to make it efficient & healthy for the up and coming ski season, stay injury free and well balanced with the quadriceps, gluteus and hip flexors.
High repetition with minimal load is best, usually body loading is enough. It’s the performance technique of the exercise execution- good form that is crucial.

Any exercise can be harmful to the body if not perform correctly and when speaking of the hamstrings, even more so.

Exercises like the Diver, single leg power knee-up, modified single-leg squat are examples of good eccentric endurance loading exercises, which the hamstring need for functional strength. The full Romanian deadlift is a high risk exercises to the hamstring by the way!

The hamstring is most vulnerable when the upper body- torso and pelvic are forward with hip and knee extended, and also when skinning or running uphill with body leaning forward, hip over-flexed and when running uphill with hands on thighs.

Tips to keep your hamstrings healthy when training uphill: maintain quick leg cadence, look uphill- do not lean forward with your torso, open chest, use your arms starting at the shoulder to drive the opposite leg, body weight underneath your hips- not in the forefoot since it weakens and pre-fatigues the hamstring and the calf muscles, and make sure your heels touch the ground, exception when the grade is very steep!

Healthy hamstrings are crucial for power on snow and also help prevent & protect the ACL & MCL (knee ligaments), the patellar tendon and other soft tissues from injuries.

Lets look at some factors that can increase the risk of injury:
Identify your strength & weaknesses!

Risk factors:
Poor sport specific technique
Sudden acceleration
Sudden change of direction
Falling forward
Poor fitness
Short & tight hamstring
Too much too soon in early season

Fatigue factors:
Poor endurance capacity of the hamstring, outcome; optimal length becomes shorter.
Muscle elasticity shortens/decreases with duration or intensity of workout.
Hamstring fatigue faster then quadriceps and hip flexors.
Muscular fatigue absorbs less energy, greater impact force and strain on the muscle.
Not enough recovery between days/workouts

Hamstring injuries often occur at the end of a workout, during competition, or return to sport after time away, too much volume-intensity too soon.

Predisposing factors for suffering a hamstring injury:
Previous injuries e.g: knee ligaments, lower back, achilles tendinopathy, calf strain.
Strength deficits
Poor stretching techniques
Poor ski/skinning/running form e.g: uphill and downhill!
History of anterior cruciate ligament- ACL surgery

Muscular imbalances risk factors for suffering a hamstring injury:
Poor hip extension
Shorten hip flexors & TFL (tensor fasciae latae)
Poor pelvic control (pelvis dropping forward)
Dorsiflexion range restriction (ankle and knee flexion simultaneously)
Ineffective hamstring (tight, short and fatigue)
Imbalances between quad concentric strength and hamstring eccentric strength

Best way to train the hamstring…. but first a bit of biomechanics…
When running flat, sprinting or skinning uphill, the hamstrings undergo a stretch-shortening cycle, with the lengthening phase occurring during the terminal swing and shortening phase commencing just before foot/ski strike the ground, and continuing throughout the stance or glide phase. Secondly, the biomechanical load on the hamstring muscles is found to be greatest during the terminal swing- when the muscle is loaded eccentrically, what does that mean?

Lets review:
Difference between concentric & eccentric contraction in the hamstring:
A concentric contraction, which refers to shortening of the muscle.
example: leg curl – hip extension with knee flexion (leg-curl machine)
An eccentric contraction, which refers to increased tension of a muscle-tendon unit during lengthening.
example: single leg stance, flexing at the hip with knee extended and torso moving forward in a neutral position (modified Romanian deadlift).

3 best ways to load the hamstring in a safe environment:
High load posterior chain exercise: modified Romanian deadlift
High volume eccentric exercises: the Diver, modify singly leg-squat
Stretch shortening phase exercise: laying prone leg curl with band.

Ski and skinning specific drills for the hamstrings:
Loading the hamstring in a functional way for the ski season
A few examples:
Fast single leg hops with acceleration: 2-3 quick jumps, fast reaction time, followed with 10 seconds acceleration sprint.
Double power leg jump forward: 2-4 forward jump (as far as possible), quick ground reaction, focus up and forward followed by quick acceleration 10 seconds sprint.
Accelerating fast forward for 10 seconds with quick change of direction, running backwards- reaching back with the heels, to the start position and repeat 4 times.

Stretching a tight hamstring can actually make it worst especially if you’re aggressive and putting lots of force/load & over-stretching it at the same time. The goal is not to touch your toes!

If you feel pain, discomfort, tightness and numbness while stretching or executing exercises, its a good sign you are going too far into the stretch, and/or have poor form or doing a stressful exercise for the hamstrings. You put the hamstring in a vulnerable position and can create micro fiber tear that will damage the tissue.

A good stretch to do when you have tight hamstrings is to lay on your back on the floor, put your legs up against the wall, the closer your butt will be to the wall the more intense the stretch will be, adjust accordingly. It’s a safe position, pelvis is stable, the force of gravity increase circulation, eliminates some toxin and relaxes the tense fascia surrounding the muscle. Hold for a minute or more. You can also add leg spread and also hold for while.

Hydration is crucial in the winter and easily forgotten. It helps keep the connective tissue and muscles supple, flexible and helps reduce the chance of getting ‘stiffer’. So drink lots of water each day, and also before, during and after skiing, cimbing and skinning!

Some good tips if you have a tendency to have tight hamstrings:
Spray very cold water directly on the muscle before each shower: around 30 seconds
Only stretch mildly and never to pain
Foam rolling but only if it makes you feel better, it’s not proven its advantageous for the hamstring like it is for the quadriceps and other muscle groups.
Regular deep tissue massage
Eccentric loading exercises & drills
Get a professional musculoskeletal assessment done by a sports rehab specialist.
Come to the Chamonix Vertical training sessions!

A few tips when skinning or running uphill… be good to your hamstrings!
Maintain quick stride, look uphill, do not lean at the waist, chest & shoulder upward , focus on pulling the back leg forward instead of just driving with the knees, make sure the heels touch the ground, exception when it’s too steep.

The hamstring is predominantly a climbing muscle with some outstanding aerobic capacity, which for us mountain endurance athletes, it should be a priority to take good care of them. It’s a phenomenal muscle but vulnerable, special attention is needed!

Get inspired, take good care of your hamstrings!

Thank you for readingChloë
Educational articles for the passionate mountain athlete – New for 2018!

If you live in the Chamonix area, I coach twice a week SkiVert training which is everything your hamstrings need to get ready for the ski and skinning season!
Come learn great drills and intervals for uphill & downhill. Everyone welcome.
Tuesdays: 6:15 to 7:15
Thursday: 18:45 to 19:45
Location: les Planards


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