Overdeveloped Quads and Confidence Spell Trouble

Those who know me well might say I have a tendency to leap first and look later—over my shoulder, from, say, the bottom of a shark tank or the scratchy and unforgiving belly of a rope net. These are true stories.

I also have an overdeveloped confidence in what my body can do—despite the uneven way I’ve trained it for the past 40ish years.

And now the chickens have come home to roost. I may be facing surgery to repair a substantial tear of my right hamstring tendon. I don’t want this to happen to you. Ever. So here’s my cautionary tale:

First, until very recently, I ignored my hamstrings.

In my defense, I couldn’t see them. Quadriceps are so pretty. I liked doing leg extensions at the gym because I got the immediate satisfaction of seeing my quad look like a big loaf of bread every time I extended my leg. Rarely did I flop face down on my belly to knock out a set of hamstring curls. Too awkward and uncomfortable and the machine smelled funny.

During decades of barre classes, I focused intently on the muscles I could see in the mirror. When the instructor said, “This is for the hamstrings,” I heard a little “La la la” sound in my head. Break time. Let’s get back to those thighs!

I had quads of steel. I had hamstrings of udon.

Then, a couple of years ago, I went skiing and in my typical fashion, I allowed an 11-year-old to lead me up a mountain. And up. And up. We were both green skiers and after our third trip on a gondola, we finally settled on a windswept peak that looked like the place people go heli-skiing.

“I don’t think this is where my instructor took me,” the 11-year-old finally acknowledged tearfully. Because I love her and because we were all alone and had nowhere to go but down, I put on a brave face and led the way.

She made it down just fine. I didn’t do a cartwheel while wearing alpine skis on purpose. For months afterwards, I was in agony, unable to sit in a car or at a desk. I did a lot of standing. I didn’t see a doctor or a physical therapist. After about a year, I slowly regained the use of the back of my right leg.

I discovered the Megaformer and got stronger. It was a heady feeling. After a few classes, I literally felt like I could lift a pick-up truck over my head! I started training with the idea (again, leaping, not looking) of opening a studio of my own.

One day I was training with Natasha, a master trainer of the method we use in our studio, the Lagree Method. I complained that my quads were sore. She looked horrified.

“Why?” she asked.

“All those lunges,” I replied. We were putting in 12 hours a day on a Megaformer. What did she expect?

“You should be keeping the weight in the forward heel. You should feel it in your glutes and hamstrings.” Natasha looked worried.

Aha! We were training our hamstrings. I started to feel it where I should. I became a hamstring evangelist. Hamstrings are critical for two things: (1) Running, which requires knee flexion and hip extension and (2) Deceleration, the ability to stop, change direction and move again. And those hamstrings are critical knee stabilizers.

I talk a lot about “intelligent fitness,” and intelligent fitness includes (drumroll) training the back of the legs as well as the front. But it means being smart about your activity level compared to your training, expertise and how you’re feeling on a particular day. In other words, even when your workout is intelligent, you may not have your thinking cap on.

So about a month ago, a friend asked me to play squash. I hadn’t played in 25 years. He was ranked number 1 in his division. It had been a long day and I was dehydrated and tired. So of course I said, “Yes!”

On the first point, as I lunged for the ball, I heard a pop and felt something unpleasant in my right glute. I played for another 40 minutes. Yes, it hurt, but I wasn’t paying attention to my body. There was a game going on. In the ensuing weeks, I went to spin class, took CoreMotion classes when I could, modifying to accommodate the pain in my right leg. Sitting became excruciating. I was spending so much time perched on a heating pad, I felt like a hen trying to hatch an egg. This time, I went to an orthopedist.

When he showed me my MRI results, where a thin white squiggle was all that connected my hamstring tendon to the bone at the site of insertion, called “hamstring tendinopathy,” I began to faint. I spent the rest of our time together with my legs propped over my head while he explained my options to me: Experimental therapy where they will inject my own plasma into the injury, rest and physical therapy. If that doesn’t work, then I’m having a gnarly surgery.

So here’s my takeaway from this literal pain in the ashcan situation in which I find myself:

  • Train your hamstrings if you’re planning to run fast, stop, and change direction anytime soon.
  • Listen to your instructors during the classes you take. They are giving you those cues for a reason. A good reason.
  • Even if you’re working out intelligently now, you may have years of not-so-smart training to overcome.
  • Listen to your body. Know your limits. If you’re tired or dehydrated, skip the 10-mile-run or the highly competitive game of squash. Go home, drink a liter of water and read a good book.

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