“You need a good range of motion in the hips and lower back”, says Graham Anderson, a physiotherapist who has worked with everyone from Olympic cyclists to weekend warriors. “Without it, your power output will be reduced because you won’t be able to get maximal force from the gluteal muscles. What’s more, if you have a stiff lower back, you’ll typically overreach with the arms, putting too much weight on the hands and causing tightness across the upper back and neck.”
While you may not need to be able to wrap your feet around your shoulders or bend over backwards to ride your bike, you do need to maintain — or, more likely, regain — a ‘normal’ range of motion in the joints, in order to ride comfortably and efficiently — and to be able to adapt your riding position where necessary.
You also need to consider the joints and muscles that cycling doesn’t use. “In cycling, you’re only moving your joints in a straight line — there’s no other plane of motion, such as rotational or lateral movement,” explains Anderson. “It’s important to take your joints through these neglected ranges, too, otherwise flexibility will diminish.”
Why does flexibility matter?
“Riding a bike is not something that we evolved to do,” says Mark Simpson, former lead strength and conditioning coach at the English Institute of Sport, who worked with the British Cycling team. “It’s not a natural movement like running or walking, and is therefore more likely to cause muscular imbalances and postural changes.”
As an example, the forward-leaning, crouched position adopted by roadies and track cyclists tends to make the hip ﬂexors tighten and shorten (“every cyclist I know has hip ﬂexor tightness,” says Simpson) causing an anterior pelvic tilt and an excessively arched lower back.
“Postural changes like this can lead to chronic problems such as lower back pain that will affect your daily activities, not to mention your riding, in the long-term,” he adds. Bogue agrees. “If muscles get tight, they pull on bones and put things out of alignment, increasing the risk of pain, discomfort and injury,” she says.
In Bogue’s experience there are some key areas to address. “The areas which are tight in cyclists are so universal I can practically tick the boxes,” she says. Stiff quads, hip ﬂexors, hamstrings and lower backs are top of the list, accompanied by tight ‘closed’ shoulders and chest muscles.
So what do we do to redress the balance? “The key thing is to reverse the cycle posture,” she says. “For example, stretches which extend the lower back are a great antidote to the ﬂexed, forward-leaning position on the bike.”
A cyclist herself, Bogue has experienced the stiffness and tightness that can result from hours in the saddle, and believes yoga is the perfect complement. “It’s a way of elongating the muscles, but also it enhances your body awareness, so you notice what feels tight or stiff — and know what to do to alleviate it.”
When should I stretch? Before a ride is not the best time to stretch: your muscles are cold, making them more susceptible to injury, plus static stretching (in which you hold a ﬁxed position) can reduce power output for up to an hour. Instead, include some ‘dynamic’ stretching in your warm-up to prepare your muscles. “Take your joints through movements that replicate the range of motion you’ll be using,” advises Anderson.
Bogue recommends the ‘Sun Salutation’ series from yoga. “It warms up the muscles as well as stretching and strengthening them,” she says. After a ride — or as a stand-alone session after warming up — use static stretching to help restore muscles to their ‘resting’ length, or to develop length in shortened muscles.
How long should I stretch for? You need to allow time for the ‘stretch response’ to take place, which occurs once the muscle relaxes and stops trying to protect itself from the stretch. Aim for at least 20 seconds, but 60 or more to increase flexibility.
How many stretches should I do? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends performing each stretch two to four times.
How far should I stretch? “It shouldn’t be painful but there should be a little discomfort and tension,” says Anderson.
How often should I stretch? ACSM advises flexibility training two or three times per week.