Why Stretching is Important for Cyclists
In this post, Guest Author Jamie Singer explains the science behind why stretching is important for cyclists, and explains how stretching can help you to reduce muscle pain and cycle more efficiently. Jamie loves to ride his Cannondale SuperX Ultegra and blogs about his cycling adventures on his blog Bike Torpedo, which you can find here.
We’ve all been there. The day after you push your body to its limits, finally reaching your cycling goals – you feel amazing that you’ve ridden those extra miles, but your body has entered “muscle hangover” mode. The question is, can a cyclist do anything to avoid the soreness after extreme physical exertion? In this article I will explore how muscles work, why a cyclist might get muscle aches, and how stretching can ease the pain.
How Do Muscles Work?
Muscles work a little bit like Velcro. There are two components of a muscle: extrafusal and intrafusal fibres. Within the protein strands of extrafusal fibres, the contractile elements of a muscle are composed of units called myofilaments. Within these filaments there are thick and thin “strands” of smaller protein chains. When you contract a muscle, these filaments slide past each other, which shortens the muscle – this is the “bulge” you see for instance, when you flex your bicep. The body converts the energy created by the shortening myofilament via the tendon that attaches to the bone – and movement is created.
Let’s take the calf muscles as an example. The gastrocnemius is a double-headed muscle that originates from the femur of the thigh, and inserts into the back of the heel through the Achilles tendon. When you want to flex your knee and point your foot downwards (an action known as plantarflexion) your brain sends a signal to the gastrocnemius, causing it to contract. IGiven the rotational movement necessary when pedalling, this contraction is crucial to produce the movement.
Where Does the Muscle Soreness Come From after Cycling?
The calf muscles aren’t the only muscle group that works during cycling. The entire lower body is in action, with the hip, knee and ankle joints moving through their range of motion. However, none of the joints runs through its full range of motion. Why is this relevant? Well, put simply, it puts more strain on those muscles performing contraction because the energy produced by those muscles is distributed through a shorter range. So in our Velcro analogy, this might cause a “clumping” effect within those nodules of protein in the thick and thin filaments. This begins to manifest itself as “soreness” for the cyclist.
This isn’t the only reason however. It’s worth noting the difference between aerobic and anaerobic respiration at this stage. Aerobic respiration occurs when your heart pumps oxygen to the contracting muscles in order to produce enough energy to move. Past a certain exercise rate, the heart can no longer pump oxygen fast enough, which is when anaerobic respiration begins. During this period, the body begins to produce energy out of stored glucose reserves. The by-product of this is a build-up of metabolites, such as lactic acid, within the muscles. Why is this relevant? You guessed it – soreness. Combined with the clumping of protein filaments, the build-up of lactic acid compounds that aching feeling in your muscles.
Why Cyclists Need to Stretch
This build-up of waste products and irregular accumulation of muscle protein is exactly why we need to stretch after a long bike ride. Two things happen when you stretch. Firstly you are regrouping those thick and thin filaments back into an ordered state. Think of Velcro – it’s much easier to stick Velcro when the two sides are flat instead of in a clumped state. Secondly, it is the venous system, as opposed to the arterial system, that is responsible for returning waste products back to the systemic circulation in order to be removed – by stretching you are activating a “muscle pumping” system in the veins to enable this process to actually happen.
How Does Stretching Help Cyclists?
As reported by BikeRadar, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning ran a study on efficiency when running – and found that those who had greater stretch were more efficient. To translate this, the more your muscle is able to stretch, the better the range of motion that is available in your joints, leading to better running. This is directly applicable to cycling. The more you can flex your hip, knee and ankle joints, the better you are going to be able to cycle.
Enter the Antagonist
Stretching is important for another reason though.
Whenever one muscle in your body contracts, there is necessarily another muscle on the opposite side that stretches. Take the thigh for instance. At the front of the thigh you have the quadriceps muscle group and at the back you have the hamstrings. When you want to flex your hip the body contracts the quadriceps and stretches the hamstrings at the same time. In “physio talk” this is known as concentric contraction of the quadriceps and eccentric contraction of the hamstrings.
The opposite is true when we want to extend the hip: eccentric contraction of the quadriceps and concentric contraction of the hamstrings. In either scenario, we can label the muscle group performing the action as the agonist, and the muscle group opposing it as the antagonistic muscle group.
As we have already discussed, cycling does not use our muscles to the full range of motion – and in fact only ever uses the main muscle groups in concentric contraction. This means the action of peddling overloading the same muscle groups repetitively, which over time can cause subtle posture deformity.
This subtle warping effect of one muscle group being stronger than its antagonist might manifest itself as a dull knee, hip or back ache. The more you overwork a muscle, the more its default position will be contracted. If you’ve ever experienced this you will know the sensation. This is why pro cyclists tend to have very strong hip flexor muscles, causing an anterior pelvic tilt. Stretching can help combat this by rebalancing the agonist with the antagonistic muscle groups.
When Should Cyclists Stretch?
It is always a good idea to stretch both before and after you go for a bike ride. Warming up and warming down will help your leg muscles function at peak efficiency. Each stretch should be performed for a minimum of 30 seconds. To begin with you may find it hard to do the stretch, but over time you will master it, and will in fact need to increase your range of motion to achieve the same results. This is good! It shows that the stretch is working. It’s also a good idea to do the stretches on the days you do not ride your bike, in order to build up your range of motion.
The best stretches to perform are those that target all the main muscle groups used during cycling. These are:
- Calf muscles
- Hip flexors
How Cyclists Should Stretch
Each muscle group can be stretched in exactly the same way that you might stretch an elastic band – start with the hip and just work through the full range of motion. Simple!
Related content: Our 10-minute Complete Stretching Routine for Cyclists
Conclusion – Why Stretching is Important for Cyclists
- Muscles work like Velcro, with protein strands sliding past each other
- Soreness comes when this sliding action doesn’t work optimally
- Stretching can help rebalance the scale
- Stretching is also important to help maintain posture off the bike.
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