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As someone training for their first half marathon, I now know tight hamstrings better than ever before. Runners, bikers, CrossFit addicts and the like know what I mean when I say it can sometimes feel like someone has literally taken these power-producing muscles and braided them from right under my glutes all the way down to the back side of my knees—and then given that braid a few extra knots for good measure.
Hamstrings are a beast. They need way more TLC than most other major muscle groups in your body. Tension in these muscles leads to lower back pain, which can throw off your stride, ruin your sleep, and lead to a variety of chain-reaction injuries.
When these muscles shorten from all those hours we spend sitting in front of our computers, watching the tube, or even a seemingly harmless activity like reading a book, they begin to lose their elasticity. The resulting rigidity locks your hips in one position, removing the normal curve of the lumbar spine and flattening the lower back. When it comes time to stand up and hit the pavement—whether you’re running, walking or biking on it—your body won’t just give you that length back without a little fight. And if you’re punishing your body with static sitting day in and day out for 8 to 10 hours a stretch, there will be a cumulative effect: reduced range of motion, muscle soreness and possibly even muscle atrophy if you aren’t careful to properly compensate with physical activity.
While there have been countless articles on how bad it is for our bodies to sit all day, there’s still hope for those of us confined to a chair by the nature of our livelihood. With daily stretching (like the yoga poses I provide in my monthly Yoga for Athletes series for Active Life DC) you can start proactively compensate for rigidity, mend your hamstrings and ease lower back pain.
The following is the second of three installments revealing my three favorite yoga poses for loosening and rehabilitating the hamstrings. All three poses are designed for all people of all abilities and body types.
Help for Hamstrings, Part II: Supine Hand to Foot Pose:
- Lying on your back, loop a strap (or belt) around your right foot and extend the sole of your foot toward the ceiling. If you know you have tight hamstrings you can bend your left knee, planting the left foot firmly on the ground and enabling the right leg to straighten out.
- Gradually pull the strap toward you until you feel a gentle stretch, adjusting it to the appropriate length by wrapping the loose ends around your hands.
- Hold and breathe into that initial feeling of tightness for 90 seconds to three minutes. Let comfort be your guide—this should feel good and if it doesn’t you're likely pulling too hard or too fast. With each inhale try to ground down through your rest leg and length through the heel of your extended leg. With each exhale slowly pull your leg closer to your torso, little by little, cinching up on your strap as necessary. Make sure you stabilize both hips on the mat—perhaps even draping a heavy blanket across your belt line—to keep the stretch in your hamstrings.
- Once you’ve completed your long hold, relax and switch legs.
Stay tuned in March for my Help for Hamstrings, Part III: Supine Reclining Butterfly.