Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Caring for your hamstrings

My hamstring muscles and I first became well acquainted about 52 years ago, when I was a 16-year-old track athlete.  That's when I suffered my first hamstring injury -- the first of many, I'm sorry to say -- and learned the hard way that preventing a "hamstring pull" is a lot better than healing one.  I have also learned -- yes, the hard way -- that the older you get, the more likely you are to injure the hamstrings while training or competing.
   No matter how hard I try, I still fall victim to hamstring injuries now and then.  But since I do invest a lot of time and effort in prevention, I thought I should share a few thoughts on how you can pursue your Taekwondo training while minimizing the risk of hamstring pulls.
   Before we get to that, let's quickly review the two major muscle groups of the upper leg.  On the front of each upper thigh are the quadriceps, better known as the quads: four muscles that extend or straighten the leg when they contract.  If you sit on a chair and extend your leg, you're relying primarily on your quads.  And when you deliver a front snap kick, it's your quads that power the kick forward and fully extend the striking leg.
   The hamstrings, on the other hand, are a group of three muscles on the back of each upper thigh.  These muscles are responsible for leg flexion, or pulling the leg back into position after it has been extended.  Think again of the front snap kick.  After your quads drive the leg up and out, the hamstrings pull the leg back into the chambered position -- something that is required of a properly executed front snap kick.
   During routine daily activities, these two key muscle groups -- the quads and the hamstrings -- generally work in perfect harmony.  We walk, we sit, we climb stairs, and we descend stairs without ever thinking of how the muscles of our legs function.  But athletes, and especially aging athletes, need to pay close attention to these muscle groups, or things can go bad very quickly.
   Let's go back to our front snap kick.  There are two surefire ways to injure the hamstring muscles when executing a powerful front snap kick.  First, your kick can extend beyond the hamstrings' ability to stretch.  Result: a pulled, or strained, hamstring.  In more serious cases you can tear the muscle, but generally the injury is less severe than that.  Second, when you quickly pull the kick back to the chambered position you can put excess force on the hamstrings' ability to contract.  Result: a pulled, or strained, hamstring.
   Depending upon the severity of the injury and how quickly you get professional help, you can be hobbled by hamstring injuries for days, weeks, or, yes, months.  And if your hamstrings don't work, you won't be competing in any Taekwondo tournaments.  That's a fact.
   Okay, you probably know most of this, since you've no doubt injured your hamstrings somewhere along the line during your athletic career.  After all, this is a blog for seniors, right?  So let's take a look at some of the ways you and I can try to avoid hamstring pulls.   There's no way to guarantee that you won't pull a hamstring someday, but these steps will reduce the likelihood of injury.
   Warm up slowly.  I train every day, mixing up my routines as much as possible to keep things interesting and to avoid overuse injuries.  But no matter what the workout, I begin with at least 30-40 minutes of gentle leg warm-up.  At least half of this time is spent on a recumbent exercise bike; I prefer the recumbent bike to an upright bike because I find it to be a lot easier on my aging lower back. 
   Stretch gently.  Once I've worked up a good sweat on the bike -- and raised the internal temperature of my leg muscles -- I do a series of gentle leg stretches.  I always begin by lying flat on my back [doing this on a workout mat or carpet makes sense], then using both hands to pull first one thigh, then the other, to my chest.  I hold the position for 30-40 seconds with each leg, then repeat.  After that I mix things up, so you can use whatever leg stretches are comfortable for you.  But early in the workout always go gently.  Oh, and forget about those old "ballistic stretches" we were taught 50 years ago.  I use static stretches only -- that is, put the muscle into a comfortable stretch, then hold for 30-40 seconds. 
   Use your gear.  No, you don't have to use any special gear.  But I like to, especially if I have had a "tweak" in one or both hamstrings.  What's a "tweak"?  I really can't say for sure.  It's something short of a hamstring pull -- a quick twinge of discomfort that makes me a little nervous.  Whatever.  I always wear compression shorts when working out, and after warming up I generally pull on thigh supports.  These are inexpensive elastic wraps that have Velcro fasteners on them.  If you're interested, the product I use is the McDavid thigh wrap, which you can see at McDavid Thigh Wrap.  I've used the same pair for several years, and I see no signs of wear and tear.
   Kick gently.  Once the wraps are in place, I gently work through all of the kicks I'll be using in this particular workout.  Since I spend almost all of my time working on poomsae, or forms, the two kicks I use most frequently are the front snap kick and the side kick.  But regardless of the kick you plan to work on, BEGIN GENTLY.  It doesn't matter how long you've warmed up and stretched.  Your first 20-30 kicks with each leg need to be at 50% power and speed . . . or less.  If you decide to jump right into full-power kicks, you multiply the risk of injury.
   Kick with power.  By now you may be 50 or 60 minutes into your workout, and it's time to work your way up to full-power kicks.  This assumes, of course, that you're not nursing an injury.  If you are, then skip the full-power stuff today -- and for as long as necessary.  If you're not injured, then gradually use more power and speed.  Slowly let your kicks get stronger and higher.
   Stretch seriously.  I'm not the most flexible old guy on the planet and never will be.  But I'm at my most flexible at the end of a workout.  I still use static stretches only, but I aim for a fuller stretch than I did at the beginning of the workout.  Now that your body is fully warmed up and your legs are stretched a bit from kicking, you should work on extending the length of each stretch.
   Consider strengthening exercises.  Because your quadriceps muscles are generally stronger than your hamstrings, you may need to work on the hamstrings to avoid injury.  I like using a leg curl machine when I have access to a gym.  [If you haven't used one, get professional guidance on how to use the machine before getting on it.]  But a large exercise ball can be highly effective as well.  Lie on your back; put both feet on top of the ball; and then straighten out your legs and back, lifting your butt from the floor.  In this "plank" position your weight is being supported largely by your hamstrings.  Hold for 5 seconds, and lower yourself to the floor.  As with any exercise, begin gently, then work your way up to the number of reps that suits you.
   There are, of course, countless other ways to help prevent hamstring injuries, and you can find good information on the Internet or, better still, by working with a personal trainer or physical therapist.  The key to successful training for seniors is summed up in a single word: gradually.  Don't be in a hurry.  You've been around long enough to know that good things don't happen overnight.
   Good luck . . . and good training.