This complete guide to stretching for cyclists will help you to prevent cycling knee and hip pain, and injuries in general. This post explains why cyclists need to stretch, describes the focus areas that cyclists need to prioritize, and introduces you to the most important stretches you need to do to prevent pain. Cycling knee and hip pain in particular is a major concern for many cyclists. The stretches in this post are an easy way to prevent cycling knee pain and hip pain. We also include some basic exercises, if you want to be even more proactive! This post also includes two videos to show you how easy these moves actually are.
Why Stretching for Cyclists is Vital
Immediate Effects of Stretching for Cyclists
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.
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.
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.
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 Stretching 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:
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).
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.
As they are the powerhouse of the pedal stroke, it’s pretty obvious that the quads need some attention.
The IT Band stabilizes the knee; if it’s tight it can rub against the knee, become inflamed, and lead to knee pain.
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.
Lower back pain is usually a symptom of tightness in other areas; lower back pain most commonly stems from tight hamstrings.
Stretching for Cyclists Prevents Cycling-Related Pains and Injuries
Cycling knee pain in particular is a major concern for many cyclists. Here’s an easy way to prevent cycling knee pain, with a set of simple stretches – and also some basic exercises, if you want to be even more proactive! This post also includes stretches to prevent cycling hip pain, and two videos to show you how easy all these moves actually are. My post called Average Joe Cyclist’s Miraculous Cheap Cure for Cycling Knee Pain is one of my most popular posts ever. This shows how common the problem is. But never fear – you can go a long way towards avoiding all cycling pain by simply doing a few targeted stretches.
It’s Easier to PREVENT Cycling Knee Pain than to Cure it
One thing I learned when I was a life guard is that it is far better to prevent a problem than to deal with it after it happens. Stopping a non-swimmer from jumping in the deep end is a lot easier than pulling a 200 pound man up from the bottom of the pool. So I have worked hard to find ways to prevent the cycling knee pain that threatens anyone who regularly rides a bike.
What Causes Cycling Knee Pain
It is very important to have a bike that fits your own specific body, which can most easily be achieved by getting a professional bike fitting. Notice in this chart how minor problems in your bike fit can cause major problems with your knees.
Causes of Knee Pain in Bicycling
If you cannot afford a professional bike fit, or don’t want to spend that much money, it is possible to do it yourself. Here is a book called Bike Fit that will show you how to do it.
Get Your Saddle Position Right – Video
As you may notice from the chart above, one cause of cycling knee pain is surprisingly simple – wrong saddle position! Here’s a video that will help with that:
A Simple Routine of Stretching for Cyclists
A great bike fit is not enough in itself. I consulted with legendary sport physiotherapist Saqib Niaz at Tri City Physio, and was given a simple routine of stretches to prevent cycling-related pains and injuries. I can personally attest that if one does these religiously after each bike ride, cycling knee pain can be dramatically reduced – or even prevented. I even find that when I start to feel knee pain, I can make it stop more effectively by doing these stretches than by taking pain pills. So this is my simple stretching routine to prevent cycling knee pain.
Stretch 1: Stretch your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thigh)
There are many ways to do this. My favorite is to hop on an empty desk, with one leg out straight and one hanging down. It is then easy to stretch the hamstring by leaning forward. Above, my daughter Emily shows how it’s done. She kindly agreed to model these exercises (trust me, she looks WAY better in stretch pants than I do!)
It is also easy to stretch the hamstrings by just trying to touch your toes, or leaning forward to grab your ankles. Or you can try lifting one foot onto a table, and leaning forward, as Emily demonstrates above. The key is to find a stretch that you can do comfortably. Stretch each hamstring twice, for 40 seconds at a time. Do the stretches gently but firmly – and do not bounce!
Stretch 2: Stretch your quads (the muscles at the front of your thigh)
Some people are able to do this by bending their knee and putting their foot on a chair behind them, then leaning back till they feel the stretch. Personally, I find this hard. Most people can do this quad stretch by bending their knee and grabbing their ankle or foot behind their backs, as Emily demonstrates above. I find it easiest to lie down on the floor and bend my leg upwards. It’s basically the exercise above, but done lying down! Again, stretch each quad twice, for 40 seconds at a time. Do the stretches gently but firmly – and do not bounce! Try to keep your knees close together.
Stretch 3: Stretch your calves
The easiest way to do this is to put your toe on a big fat book and lean forward. You can also do it by leaning forward into a wall. Below, Emily leans into a wall with her toe on a box, for a very challenging stretch.
Stretch each calf twice, for 40 seconds at a time. Do the stretches gently but firmly – and do not bounce!
Stretch 4: Standing Straddle Stretch (Hamstrings, Chest, Shoulders)
Constantly push your arms toward the front as you hold the stretch, feeling the stretch in your hamstrings and your chest. Perform the stretch twice, for 40 seconds at a time. Do the stretches gently but firmly – and do not bounce!
Stretch 5: Knight’s Pose Stretch (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.
Stretch 6: IT Opener Stretch (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.
Stretch 7: Knee Hug Stretch (Upper and 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.
Stretch 8: Shoulder Hang Stretch (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.
Stretch 9: Lower Twist Stretch
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.
Stretch 10: Figure Four Stretch (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.
Stretch 11: Downward Dog Stretch (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.
Stretch 12: Pigeon Stretch (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.
Finally: Wrap up Your Stretching for Cyclists by Practicing Balancing on One Leg
Basically the idea is to balance on each leg twice, for as long as you can. Make the balance more or less challenging, depending on how good your balance is. Emily demonstrates a simple balance here.
Below Emily demonstrates a more challenging balance. Folding your arms in front of you at shoulder height makes the balance much harder. Lifting your knee higher also makes it harder. And to make it even more challenging, try closing your eyes!
Balancing is a matter of use it or lose it – and riding a bike will not in itself provide enough balancing practice. My balance was terrible when I started doing balance work, but it has improved dramatically. Good balance is linked to strong, stabilizing core muscles, which help you to maintain good posture on your bike, thus avoiding cycling knee pain. And that’s it. Just four simple steps, but they have dramatically decreased my cycling knee pain – I hardly ever get it any more. Try it – you have nothing to lose but your knee pain. And even if it does not work for you, you will definitely increase your flexibility and improve your balance!
Stretching for Cyclists: Video Showing Three Vital Exercises that Prevent and Cure Cycling Knee Pain
Bonus: This video shows three vital exercises that will both prevent and cure cycling knee pain, demonstrated by ace physiotherapist Saqib Niaz.
Stretching for Cyclists – Video Showing Three Stretches to Prevent and Treat Cycling Hip Pain
A while ago, I started experiencing a new cycling-related pain – hip pain in what I call the wallet area. You know, the spot where guys carry wallets in their back pockets. Pain so bad I thought I had some kind of wallet-area cancer. But it wasn’t cancer, just good old-fashioned cycling hip pain. Unfortunately, the hunched over, forward leaning position on a 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. So I consulted with my trusty physiotherapist, and ended up adding in three stretches for the hips. These stretches worked like magic! So, I highly recommend adding in these hip stretches. They are demonstrated in this video, by the trusted physiotherapist I just mentioned. Saquib is doing these on a table, but I have figured out how to do them on my bed.
One more tip: Ice Proactively
By this I mean, don’t wait for actual cycling knee pain to set in before hauling out the ice packs. I ice after every major ride, just to soothe my knees and reduce the chances of inflammation, irritation, and swelling. Use a good product that makes it easy. I have a set of Therapearl Knee Wraps that are easy to strap around my knees. Here is one of them, strapped around one of Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist’s knees:
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