If you’re experiencing hamstring pain, there are a few possible causes. One is a regular result of intense exercise, and the other has more serious effects. Read on to know the difference between the two.
What causes hamstrings pain?
The short answer is muscle damage, but the long one is more complicated.
DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
One of the most common culprits for sore hamstrings is delayed onset muscle soreness. “DOMS is when you finish a workout on day one, but it’s not until day two or three that you feel any aches or pains associated with that workout,” says NASM-certified fitness and group exercise instructor Austin Kalai.
The pain you experience from DOMS is the result of micro-tears in the muscles created by your workout. “Whenever you challenge yourself in a workout, you’re going to cause microscopic damage to your muscle tissue,” says Trevor Thimay, CSCS, Beachbody’s director of fitness and nutrition content.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s completely normal. And that’s what stimulates the repair and adaptation processes that allow you to build muscle and get stronger,” he explains. “But when you push yourself too hard or change your routine significantly, you can cause enough micro-damage to feel it.”
Which brings us to an important point: pain has nothing to do with exercise quality or effectiveness. “It means you’ve overdone it,” says Thiem. “So exercise-induced muscle soreness is only a big deal if it prevents your next workout, it’s not something to chase or celebrate.”
Bottom line: Despite the common tendency to brag about how killer leg day was because they couldn’t climb the stairs for two days afterward, building muscle doesn’t hurt at all. Actually, it shouldn’t.
Strain and tension
Hamstring pain can also result from a pulled or pulled hamstring. This usually causes a different type of pain than DOMS, instead feeling sharp and directed.
Strain and tension come in different levels of intensity.
“A grade 1 strain is secondary,” says Kallai Basically, the muscle was not warmed up and then pushed to the upper end of its normal range of motion, or even slightly further, and this caused mild damage to the muscle fibers.
“A grade 3 strain is the most severe, indicating a complete (or nearly complete) muscle tear. When this happens, the muscle can even separate from the tendon,” he says.
Sore hamstring vs pulled hamstring
You may be wondering: How can I tell the difference between a sore hamstring from DOMS and a muscle pull or strain?
The differences between the two can be determined not only by how each feels, but also when — and how long — the pain persists.
Hamstring pain due to DOMS will feel tender, tight, and stiff after a workout. Pain usually peaks between 24 and 48 hours and usually lasts only a few days.
A pulled muscle elicits a more immediate deep, stabbing pain that is often accompanied by noticeable swelling. Depending on its severity, this type of injury can take weeks to months to heal and may require medical care.
“A pulled hamstring is a different beast,” says Thiem. “It’s a tear in muscle tissue that results from overstretching, overuse, or excessive stress, such as trying to lift weights that are too heavy, too quickly.”
If you’re experiencing severe and/or debilitating pain, don’t take any chances. Consult a medical professional to get an accurate diagnosis.
How to treat hamstring pain
Hamstring pain attributed to DOMS should resolve on its own within a day or two. In the meantime, there’s still a lot you can do to ease your discomfort.
If your DOMS isn’t severe enough to limit mobility, Kalai recommends getting a massage, sitting in a sauna, doing some light stretching and engaging in some light, active recovery. “Active recovery is any low-intensity activity, such as hiking, easy cycling, or walking on a treadmill at a low incline,” says Kallai. Your goal is to get your blood flowing, ease muscle tension, and speed recovery — all of which can help reduce DOMS.
How can I prevent sore hamstrings?
If you are new to strength training, it can be difficult to avoid muscle soreness. “You’re challenging your muscles in a way they’ve probably never experienced before,” explains Thiem. “Also, it takes time to understand how hard you have to work to optimize results without getting pain.”
But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to constant interruptions and chronic discomfort. Follow these tips to reduce the severity of exercise-induced muscle soreness—and possibly prevent it from happening in the first place.
1. Warm up dynamically
“Never skip your warm-up,” says Thieme. “Dynamic stretching before you exercise primes your muscles for action, increasing workout performance and reducing your risk of experiencing serious pain and injury.”
Here are two dynamic warm-up exercises that specifically target your hamstrings. Incorporate them into your existing warm-up to ensure you’re ready for your workout and reduce soreness.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, feet parallel, hands on your hips. This position begins.
- Keeping your back flat and core engaged, push your hips back and hinge forward until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings.
- Pause, and then return to the starting position.
Four-point hamstring curl
- Assume a cat/cow position with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. This position begins.
- Extend your right leg straight behind you.
- Bend your right knee, pressing your heel toward your glute.
- Pause, and return to the starting position.
- Repeat equally on both legs.
2. Avoid overtraining
“It’s important to challenge yourself in every workout, but not excessively,” says Thiem. “If you can’t complete all your reps and sets with good form, you’re lifting too much.”
Also, if you can’t walk the day after a workout because of DOMS, consider reducing your repetitions or weight for later.
3. Cool down with stretches
Supplement your workout with cooldown exercises that lower your heart rate and stretch tired muscles. Although research shows that stretching probably doesn’t help with muscle soreness after a workout, it can reduce tension and thereby reduce the risk of pulls and strains.
Standing in front
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your sides.
- Keeping your back flat, reach your hips forward and fold your torso over your legs.
- Hold for 30 seconds and slowly return to the starting position.
4. Foam roll
While stretching doesn’t help relieve muscle soreness, studies have shown that foam rolling can help after a tough workout. Foam rolling increases blood flow, which can reduce exercise-induced discomfort.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight and a foam roller under your thighs. Place your hands on the floor on either side of your hips.
- Lift your butt and use your hands to roll the entire length of your hamstrings—from below your glutes to your knees.
For a deep roll, cross one leg over the other, rolling one leg at a time.