stretching for cyclists

It’s not surprising when you consider what riding a bike entails. “It’s a repetitive action performed through a limited range of motion, which means that the legs are neither fully extended nor fully flexed,” explains Rebecca Bogue, a yoga teacher who runs Yoga for Cyclists classes. “Joints are never taken through their full range of motion.”

“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?

Poor flexibility doesn’t just put your cycling performance at stake, it also gives you bad posture and hikes up your injury risk too.

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.”

Stretching Q&A

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.

1

Five post-ride leg stretches

The moment your ride ends is when your recovery should start. Get your lower limbs off to a flyer with this 5-minute warm down

  1. Hamstrings

  • You’ll need a low, stable surface such as a chair, table or wall to perform this stretch. Once you’ve located something suitable, stand up straight in front of it with your feet hips-width apart. This is the starting position.
  • Raise your right leg and place the heel of your right foot onto the top of your stable surface.
  • Now, with your toes pointed upwards and the leg fully extended, gently lean forward and push downwards so that you feel a good stretch through your hamstring.

Hold for 30 seconds, gently pushing a little deeper down if you feel the tension in the hamstring loosen off. Never force it, though, and make sure that your movements are smooth instead of jerky throughout.

  • Slowly return to the starting position and repeat the stretch with your left leg.
  1. Quads

  • Stand up straight with your feet hips-width apart. This is the starting position.
  • Raising your right foot behind you, grab your right foot with your right hand, and pull your heel towards your backside while pushing your thigh forward.
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds. You should feel a good stretch along the front and side of your quads or thigh. If you struggle to maintain your balance doing this one, lean against a wall for support.

Alternatively, try touching your left earlobe with your left hand as this can also help. And no, we’re not pulling your leg!

  • Return to the starting position and repeat the stretch with your left leg.
  1. Glutes

  • Stand up straight with your feet shoulders-width apart. This is the starting position.
  • Take a big step forward with your right leg, keeping the knee directly above the ankle. The knee of your left leg should be resting on the floor. Put your hands on the ground either side of you a bit like a sprinter in the blocks. This will help with balance.
  • Breathing in, gently push your torso down and forward until you feel a strong stretch through your right buttock. You may also feel a stretch in your groin and hips. Hold the position for 30 seconds remembering to breathe steadily throughout.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat the stretch with your left leg.
  1. Hips

  • Stand up straight with your feet shoulders-width apart. This is the starting position.
  • With your hands on your hips or in the air above you, lunge forward with your right foot until your right leg is bent at a 90° angle and your right thigh is parallel to the floor.

You should be up on the toes of your left foot, meanwhile, with your left knee hovering just above the floor.

  • Push forward with your hips. You should feel a good strong stretch through your hip muscles (sometimes called your hip flexors or, iliopsoas). Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat the stretch, but this time with your left leg forward. The trick to getting this one right is to ensure you always take a big enough step forward.

It’s especially important to make sure the knee of your leading leg is always behind the toes during the during the lunge.

If it’s not you’ll put undue weight and pressure on the knee ligaments, which can result in injury.

  1. Groin

  • Sit down on the floor and lie on your back. This is the starting position.
  • Raise your right leg so that your right ankle crosses over and rests on your left knee. Now, reaching down under your left thigh, clasp both hands together and, breathing inwards, pull your left knee towards your chin.
  • When you feel a good strong stretch through your groin, hold the position for 30 seconds, remembering to breathe steadily throughout.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat the

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