In Aussie rules football, injuries to the ankle, knee and shoulder joints are common – it is a contact sport after all; but hands down each season we see more hamstring strains than any other injury. The research shows you are most at risk if you have had a previous hamstring injury and if you are over the age of 25 (read the study here) so if that is you, I encourage you to read on! Not interested in why? Scroll to the bottom for some tips on how to prevent a hamstring strain this footy season.
Why are hamstring strains so common in football?
A hamstring strain is most likely to occur during an eccentric contraction or when the muscle is lengthening. In football this occurs during sprinting as the leg strides ahead and during kicking, especially a powerful kick designed to make the ball go long distances as we see in Aussie rules. Due to the direction and power needed to strike the ball, a football player’s quads will often be very strong and dominant over the hamstrings as well. A muscle is at it’s strongest in the mid range so as the hamstring goes beyond this mid range and towards the end of it’s flexibility range it becomes weaker and less likely to be able to create enough contractile strength to control against the dominant quadriceps muscles.
Another component to consider is what gives us flexibility in the first place; the nervous system. The nervous system is a key component to flexibility, in fact studies have proven that there is no alteration to the muscle length when you increase your flexibility but rather a change in the muscles ability to ‘let go’. Pretty incredible, the brain really does control everything! (A great article explaining this in more depth can be found here)
When you play football your nervous system needs to communicate the message from your brain to your hamstrings to be short to create a powerful push off during a sprint and then to be long if you need to stride out or if you need to kick the ball a long way down the field. If anything disrupts this signal or if the signal gets muddled this can spell disaster for your hamstring.
There are a number of factors that increase your risk of a hamstring strain such as the lack of warm up before a training match or game; previous hamstring injury particularly if not rehabilitated properly; increased age; lower back injury; lack of flexibility in the hamstring; increased neural tension and poor lumbar posture. If any of this sounds like you, read the ideas below on how to prevent a hamstring strain, but even better, get to a Myotherapist, Physiotherapist, Clinical Pilates Instructor or Exercise Physiologist for some advice more specific to you. (Some more light research reading for you!)
Some tips to prevent a hamstring strain.
Train your hamstrings to be long and strong
Many hamstring strengthening exercises train the hamstrings in their strongest range, the mid range. If you want your hamstrings to remain strong even when they are towards the end of the flexibility range it makes sense to train them to be that way. One of the most popular eccentric workouts for your hamstrings is the nordic curl (pictured below). If you don’t have someone to hold your legs down simply hook them under something heavy or sturdy. To make it easier you can use bands around your body anchored behind you and to make it harder you can extend your arms over head or hold a weight of some kind.
In the gym you can try straight leg dead lifts and in the Pilates studio I love front splits (pictured below) which again works the hamstrings whilst lengthening them. It can easily be made easier or harder depending on a persons capabilities as well.
Look after your insides too
Many people forget that their insides effect the musculoskeletal system too. Things like dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and increased inflammation can all have an affect on your body. Don’t panic, I’m not about to recommend a new eating plan! Everything in moderation (so long as you don’t have a allergy or sensitivity to something) is the key. Inflammatory foods and drinks such as refined foods, alcohol, sugary drinks and fried foods should be kept to a minimum and increasing anti-inflammatory foods such as vegetables, oily fish, small amounts of nuts particularly macadamia nuts (highest in omega 3) and olive oil just to name a few. You can also use herbs such as turmeric in your cooking and some people find supplements such as magnesium, curcumin (concentrated form of turmeric), fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin helpful. Consulting with your GP or equivalent before introducing supplements or making dramatic changes in your diet is always a good idea, however if you make a few small changes here and there, it could make all the difference!
Warm up properly before training and games
Try to arrive on time and do the warm up. You would be amazed the amount of people who come in with injuries who skip the warm up. Even if you’re running late, do your own warm up before you join the team if you can, it’s not worth risking an injury! If you feel your team warm up is not effective for you, get to a professional and get some personal advice. You may have something that needs tweaking in your posture or movement.
Get a professional to check your posture
As mentioned above, if you feel your warm up isn’t doing the job, it’s a good idea to get looked at by a Physiotherapist, Myotherapist, Clinical Pilates Instructor or Exercise Physiologist. Particularly if you have pain or tightness somewhere. It’s a good idea to get someone to tape a small section of your game, particularly of your running style and of your kick to help the professional work out what is going to help you the most.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the read and empowered you to change something either about your diet or your warm up; maybe I have even convinced you to give Studio Pilates a go!