DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I believe I have a hamstring strain. I am 57 and work out three days a week, both running and weight training. What’s the best way to get rid of such a strain, how long does one usually last, and how can a person prevent it? – C.C.

ANSWER: The hamstring muscles are the ones on the backs of the thighs, and they are among the most frequently injured muscles, in both contact and noncontact sports.

These muscles bend the knees. They are important in stopping forward motion while running when an athlete must slow down or change direction. They perform the same function in exercising leg muscles as when lowering the bent knee to the starting position.

A muscle strain is a breaking of some muscle fibers. If many fibers are broken, it can take six to eight weeks for recovery. If only a few fibers have been broken, then recovery usually occurs in two to three weeks.

To accelerate healing, you are now at a point where warmth applied to the muscle would help – a whirlpool or a warm compress. Don’t do any activity that causes pain. If you sleep on your back, put a pillow under your knees to take tension off the muscle during the night.

You can prevent future strains through a muscle conditioning program when all pain has gone. If you have access to machines where you can perform leg curls, then you ought to take advantage of them. If you don’t have such access, you can still exercise the hamstrings by using ankle weights and lying on your stomach. Bend the knees so the lower legs are perpendicular to the floor. A series of eight bends with a minute rest and then another set of eight bends is a good start. Use a weight that you can manage comfortably for eight consecutive bends. When you get the hang of it, then increase the amount of the ankle weights.

Walking up stairs is another good hamstring exercise, and you can increase the intensity of it by wearing a weighted backpack.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Does caffeine help or hurt sport performance? I always drink a cup of coffee before playing tennis, and I think it helps me. It seems to pep me up and helps me concentrate. People tell me that I am all wet and that caffeine is hurting me. What do you say? – W.K.

ANSWER: I say do what you know makes you perform better.

Many experts extol the merits of caffeine for athletic performance. They say it staves off fatigue by preventing the rapid consumption of stored muscle energy in the form of glycogen.

Others say this is hogwash.

There must be something beneficial in caffeine, or the International Olympic Committee would not have put it on its list of banned substances. The Committee didn’t ban caffeine’s use; it limits its use. An athlete would have to drink four cups of coffee in less than an hour to get into trouble with caffeine. I don’t believe there was ever an athlete who was disqualified for using it.

If you find it helps you, then you are the best judge of its merits.

Caffeine is not everyone’s cup of tea. It makes some people jittery.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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