The hamstrings are an important 2-joint muscle that acts at both the hip and knee during running. Since they are a powerful hip extensor, they play a major role in propelling the body forward with each stride. The hamstrings also bend the knee following toe-off to prepare the leg for the recovery phase.
Strong hamstrings are able to create more force, which contributes to your ability to run faster. In addition, stronger hamstrings—and all of your leg muscles for that matter—are able to store and utilize elastic energy better, which improves your running economy. If not strong enough, or if too much demand is placed on this muscle group, runners can experience hamstring strains, tears, muscle cramps, and marked tightness. To minimize your risk for sustaining a hamstring injury, here are three exercises to strengthen different functions of your hamstrings.
Exercise 1 – Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian Deadlift strengthens the hamstrings to extend the hip, in other words, to bring the knee/thigh back following the foot strike. The groin (adductors), gluteals and low back are also strengthened in this exercise. This strength is important for running posture, power, and endurance for maintaining effective form.
Many runners have tight hamstrings and may find it difficult to achieve the optimal position required in the Romanian Deadlift. If this is the case, focus on lengthening the hamstrings by doing the banded version of the Romanian Deadlift. Once you’re able to create the postures required, you may add weight.
Do the banded version of the exercise 2–3x/week for 2–3 sets of 15–20 reps/set. For the weighted version, reduce the frequency to 1–2x/week for 2–3 sets of 8–12 reps.
Exercise 2 – Hamstring Curl with Exercise Ball
The exercise ball hamstring curl strengthens the hamstrings to flex the knee and control the knee, when the leg straightens. The groin (adductors) and gluteals are also strengthened in this exercise. The main difference between this exercise and the Romanian Deadlift is that we fix the muscle action at the hip joint (since we keep the glutes engaged and don’t let the hip joint angle change) while strengthening the knee flexion function of the hamstrings. Combined with the Romanian Deadlift, the exercise ball hamstring curl strengthens both functions of the hamstring muscles, which enhances its ability to propel the runner forward and to store elastic energy, improving running economy.
Do this 1-3x/week for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
Exercise 3 –Band-Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl
The band-assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl also strengthens the hamstrings to control and perform knee flexion. The groin (adductors) and gluteals are also strengthened in this exercise. As with the exercise ball hamstring curl, the band-assisted Nordic hamstring curl strengthens the knee flexion action of the hamstrings and contributes to better force production during the propulsion phase of each stride.
Warning: this exercise is very demanding on the hamstrings and requires tremendous strength to perform correctly—proceed with caution. The band-assisted version is a nice introduction to the exercise. As a beginner, first perform only part of the range of motion with a thick band until more strength is developed. Eventually, you can do the full range of motion movement with band assistance, and, eventually, without the band.
Do the band-assisted version of the exercise 1–2x/week for 2–3 sets of 5–8 reps. Keep the reps the same as you progress to a full range of motion and reduce or eliminate the band.
For three more challenging hamstring exercises see Part II.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a strength and conditioning specialist and co-owner of a personal training boutique gym in St. John’s, Newfoundland, JKConditioning.