Photo courtesy of ABMP
It was race day, a cool mid-October morning and I was in the Bretting Community Center providing post-event massage. The Whistle Stop Marathon runners were starting to come in at their various paces. At one point a sweaty guy came over and flopped face down on my massage table. “Please…” he pleaded. “Please work on my hamstrings.”
The hamstrings are comprised of three individual muscles. In your mind’s eye, visualize the back of the thigh. Now see three lines running from just below the knee up to the sitting bone of the pelvis. Those are your hammys. The “true” hamstrings cross two joints: the knee and the pelvis at the thigh. When the hamstrings contract, they cause the knee to bend and the hip to straighten (extend). Muscular balance between your hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors is necessary to prevent rotation of the pelvis that contributes to back pain and degeneration. When you bend at the waist and reach for your toes, you are stretching your hamstrings. Most of us haven’t learned many truly great hip flexor stretches.
When you are running or walking the hamstrings have a lot of responsibility. Not only do they contract to bring your heel toward your backside, but on the way back they have to stay contracted. Where before (in the leg cycle of running) their duty was simply to bring the foot toward the rear, now their purpose is to control hip flexion and leg extension against gravity as the leg returns. The hamstrings act to decelerate knee extension. I could understand why this guy sought some hamstring relief.
I used to attend a weekly “speed play” sprint workout for runners, and I could always feel my hamstrings afterward. I could feel them so much that the next day was always a swim day instead of running or biking, just to get some extra recovery time. The hammys help stabilize the knee then assist the glutes (with about 30% of the torque) in hip extension to propel the runner forward. Then their function changes to control hip flexion and knee extension before setting up the cycle all over again. These muscles have to be strong and well-conditioned to endure this sort of dynamic repetitive motion against gravity. Increases in speed or mileage without adequate conditioning have been known to set the hamstrings up for injury.
I asked the fellow on my table some questions so I could determine the appropriateness of massage for him then had him sign the consent-to-treat form. I noticed he was shivering or shaking so I wrapped his goodie-bag space blanket around his back and shoulders then put another blanket over that. I did a little rocking and compression to relax his nervous system then started to work on his hamstrings. I could see his breathing becoming smooth as I worked. His shivering had stopped.
When his 15 minutes were up, he sat up looking refreshed. He said he felt great and told me he was scheduled for a full-length post-event massage the next day back in his hometown. He said he likes to get massage on his recovery days every other week. I commended him for taking such good care of his body, then pointed him toward the water and electrolytes.
I wiped my table down and called over the next person on the list. Having done this before, I had a good idea what to expect.
“It’s my hamstrings.” she said, walking over to the massage table. “They feel pretty tight right now.”
I told her that she had come to the right place and set to work.
Gina McCafferty is a licensed massage therapist, and heath coach who works with women in their peri and menopausal years who have 30 or more pounds to lose.