While cycling is great for general fitness, many cyclists suffer from lack of flexibility and poor posture, and many of us suffer injuries. Stretching is the best way to combat these problems. In this post, Guest Author Sarah Lauzé of Dynamic Cyclist explains exactly how cyclists can maintain optimal functioning and avoid injuries with targeted stretches for cyclists.
Cyclists are known for their toned calves, strong thighs, and overall cardiovascular fitness. We may be able to put a ton of power into each pedal stroke, but when it comes to flexibility and range of motion, most of us are lacking. This isn’t without cause. Cycling is one of the few activities in which muscles contract concentrically (while shortening), rather than eccentrically (while lengthening). Cycling is great for our bodies as it’s low impact, but the repetitive motions can cause the muscle fibers to shorten, also known as “adaptive shortening.” This will not only cause an imbalance in your muscles and put you at risk of injury, but it can make maintaining proper posture almost impossible. The best way to combat this is with regular and targeted stretches for cyclists.
Flexibility and range of motion can be easy to ignore. So long as we can keep up on those group rides or stay in the saddle for hours at a time, they can quickly fall off the radar (if they were ever there). However, the range of movement around a joint or multiple joints is actually extremely important for all athletes, and especially for cyclists. As humans we are not built to be in a cycling position for extended periods of time, just as we aren’t built to sit at desk jobs 40 hours a week. This doesn’t mean we need to give either one up, but it does mean that we need to take the right steps to ensure cycling doesn’t have a negative effect on our body.
The hunched over, forward leaning position on the bike is known for causing the hip flexors to tighten over time. From there, these short, tight muscles with a limited range of motion can cause an anterior pelvic tilt, an arched lower back, and weak core muscles. The domino effect is no fun, so it’s always better to take preventative measures rather than reactive.
The focus should be on maintaining, or probably regaining, a healthy range of motion in the joints. From there, you’ll find you ride more comfortably, efficiently, and with better technique.
Why Cyclists Need to Stretch
Immediate Effects of Stretching for Cyclists
Accelerate recovery – Stretching reduces muscle soreness and stiffness by increasing blood flow, delivering more nutrients to your muscles and removing lactic acid and metabolites.
Stretching also promotes whole body relaxation; boosting recovery, rejuvenation and adaptation by increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system after exercise.
Increased Oxygen Flow – Stretching increases blood (and oxygen) flow to the muscles, reducing post-ride soreness with the added bonus of promoting cell growth and organ function.
Relaxation – Stretching before and after a workout can give both you and your muscles time to relax. With stress or exhaustion, the muscles will begin to tighten. Stretching can encourage a release of endorphins and leave you feeling energized rather than depleted.
Cumulative Effects of Stretching for Cyclists
Prevent Tissue Degradation – Generally speaking, our day-to-day lives are restricted to certain movements and physical exertion. Over time and with age, the body starts dehydrating and stiffening. On a cellular level, muscle fibers start developing cross-links with parallel fibers making them stick together. Stretching slows this process by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants and pulling the interwoven cellular cross links back into an ordered state.
Flexibility – Your range of motion is the distance parts of your body can move and rotate before causing damage to muscles and tendons. Everyone naturally has a different range of motion, but stretching can help you improve your range of motion. As cyclists, we need to have the freedom and flexibility to move without resistance or pain.
Injury Prevention – Everything in the body is connected, and as cyclists we demand a lot from our muscles, joints and ligaments. Stretching keeps the connections strong, treating and preventing injury, and improving functionality and longevity. We also can’t forget about the muscles and joints that are not used in cycling. On the bike, all movements are in a straight line, with no other plane of movement. So, it’s important to keep this in mind while stretching. Not only do you want to focus on the muscles used, but those that aren’t, as a means of reversing and preventing muscle imbalance.
Better Posture and Aerodynamics – Stretching the right muscles can help correct poor posture both on and off the bike. By lengthening tight muscles that pull areas of the body away from their natural position you can maintain proper posture and avoid rounding the back or slouching.
The Focus Areas for Stretches for Cyclists
There is no one recipe for optimal flexibility, as that will vary on an individual basis, but there are target areas that will be more or less the same for all cyclists. The areas that become tightened are fairly universal:
Hip Flexors – The action of cycling involves repeated hip flexion with the hip never full extending, which can cause tightness, or even a shortening of the hip flexor muscle over time. Not only can tight hip flexors cause discomfort in your everyday life, they can also reduce your cycling performance. It can lead to lower back pain and will make it tough to access the glutes (see below).
Hamstrings – Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis back on the saddle, rather than allowing a forward tilt. Also, when they become shortened they don’t allow the involvement of the glutes, which can have a negative effect on how much power you can produce.
Quads – As they are the powerhouse of the pedal stroke, it’s pretty obvious that the quads need some attention.
IT Band – The IT Band stabilizes the knee; if it’s tight it can rub against the knee, become inflamed, and lead to knee pain.
Glutes – The glutes are one of the largest and strongest muscles in your body. Leaving them inactive not only costs you power, but can lead to injury as the hamstring and quads overcompensate. Tight glutes prevent you from achieving an aerodynamic position on the bike. First things first, proper pelvic posture is key. If your front side (anterior side of your hips/hip flexors) are tight you won’t be able to use your glutes completely. Work on keeping your pelvis in a neutral position, and remember to keep your core engaged when stretching the glutes.
10 of the Best Stretches for Cyclists
After a gentle warm up, complete 4-5 of these stretches, holding each one for 1 minute if you can. If not, start with 30 seconds and build up the time. Ideally cyclists should try to stretch every day, but 5 days a week will be enough to start enjoying some of the long-term benefits.
Standing Straddle Stretch
Target: Hamstrings, Chest, Shoulders
Stand with your legs spread as wide as is comfortable. Clasp your hands behind your back. Hinge at the hips and bring your upper body down towards the floor, with your arms going straight up towards the ceiling.
Constantly push your arms toward the front as you hold the stretch, feeling the stretch in your hamstrings and your chest.
Knight’s Pose Stretch
Target: Hip Flexors and Quads
Get onto all fours on a mat. Place a blanket or a pillow under your left knee before moving into the stretch.
Slowly bring your right leg up, placing your foot flat on the floor. Your left leg should be out behind you, with your foot pointing backwards. Place your hands on your sides as you press the hips forward. You should feel the stretch all the way down your hip flexor. As your body begins to relax, you can squeeze your glutes to increase the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Lift your right foot toward your glutes, holding onto the top of your foot with your right hand. If you need help keeping your balance, move to a wall for support. Push your knee backwards, squeezing your glutes to increase the stretch in your quad. Repeat on the left side.
IT Opener Stretch (With Strap)
Target: IT Bands
Grab a strap or belt and lie down on your back with your legs out straight. Bring your right leg in toward your chest, hooking the strap around the bottom of your foot. Keeping a slight bend in your leg, pull your foot forward with the strap. Slowly pull the leg down to the left side. You should feel the stretch on the outside of your right leg and into your glute. Repeat with the left leg.
Knee Hug Stretch
Target: Upper & Lower Back
Lie down on your mat with your feet flat on the floor. Slowly bring your knees toward your chest and wrap your arms around them just below the knees. You should feel a gentle stretch in your shoulders and back. You can rock gently from side to side to help engage the stretch and massage your spine.
Shoulder Hang Stretch
Target: Hamstrings, Spine, and Lower Back
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Bring your arms above your head, grabbing each elbow with the opposite hand. Slowly hinge at the hips, bending your upper body down towards your feet.
Lower Twist Stretch
Target: Lower Back
Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent. Stretch your arms straight out by your sides. Bring your knees into your chest, then lower them slowly to the right side. If you cannot lower your knees all the way to the floor, place a pillow on the floor, and allow your knees to rest there. Both shoulders should stay flat on the floor, as you feel the stretch in your lower back.
Figure Four Stretch
Target: Hamstrings, Glutes, and Hips
Start by lying on your back, feet flat on the floor, with your knees bent and your thighs about hip distance apart. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh, making sure that your ankle bone clears your thigh. Actively flex your front foot by pulling your toes back. Maintaining this alignment, pull your left knee in toward your chest, thread your right arm through the triangle between your legs, and clasp your hands around the back of your left leg. If you can place your hands on the front of your shin without lifting your shoulders off the floor or rounding the upper back, do so. If not, keep your hands clasped around your hamstring.
Downward Dog Stretch
Target: Hamstrings, Calf Muscles & Shoulders
Get onto all fours on your mat. Plant your toes and straighten your legs, pushing your body up. Slowly drive your heels toward the floor, bringing your head in between your arms. Focus on driving your hips towards the ceiling, planting your heels on the floor, and opening up the chest and shoulders. You should feel the stretch in your calves, hamstrings, and shoulders.
Target: Hip Flexors
Get onto all fours with your hands shoulder-distance apart. Bring your right leg forward so the right ankle is between your left hand and your body. Slowly slide your left leg back, keeping your hips square. Depending on your flexibility, your knee may be in line with your ankle, or tucked closer into your body, as shown in the picture. As you relax into the stretch, gently push your body back on that left leg, opening your hips.
You don’t need to sign up for daily yoga classes or commit a ton of time to stretching, but even a little bit can go a long way in keeping you injury free, feeling good, and cycling efficiently. Start with 10 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week and you will very quickly start seeing and feeling improvements. If you don’t know where to begin, check out Dynamic Cyclist. They have daily, easy to follow stretching videos designed specifically for and by cyclists. Spend less time thinking about how and what to stretch, and more time in the saddle!
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