Stretching should be part of any rider’s ‘off the bike’ strength and conditioning routine. Good flexibility is one of those key areas for helping to avoid aches and pains on the bike and for improving function. Muscles are not individual structures, being continuous with one another, acting together to produce patterns of movement and acting in opposition for balanced movement.
Modern life has us sitting much of the time, then we sit on a bike. Our bodies accommodate being in a sustained posture, muscles can become short and tight or long and weak, not great for efficient function. Unfortunately, age also has a negative effect on flexibility!
This picture illustrates the common imbalance around the pelvis. Tight hip flexors can inhibit effective gluteus maximus function, a muscle we WANT to function effectively to maximise cycling performance, help reduce knee pain and the occurrence of ITB syndrome. It’s not all about the quadriceps! This tightness may also contribute to ‘tight’ hamstrings as shortened hip flexors can tilt the pelvis anteriorly. With the hamstrings’ attachments at the bottom of the posterior aspect of the pelvis, this tilting will effectively pull on the hamstrings making them feel tight.
Stand up tall. Now tighten your Gluteal maximus (bottom muscles) like you are holding onto a £50 note. It’ll be subtle, but what happens to your pelvis, knee and foot arch position? (pelvis should rotate back a little, knees outwards and arches heighten). A quick demonstration of how strong, functional glutes can affect the lower limb.
Just as with your training, stretching needs to be a regular activity, not a once a week big session, to reap the benefits. We all have busy lives and stretching may seem superfluous to time spent pedaling, but it should be an integral part of your active lifestyle.
A stretching session doesn’t have to take long, fitting in 10-15 minutes daily is a good target. Get into a routine and you’ll quickly feel the benefits. If pushed for time, stretch out the anterior groups (quadriceps, hip flexors and upper body) to elongate the tissues which have been in a sustained flexed position, especially if your job is desk based. The calves are good to do as well.
A quick note about the ITB. A common misunderstanding is about ‘stretching’ the ITB, you cannot stretch it, but will be stretching the structures which attach into it and surround it. It is a non contractile structure so will not be affected by a foam roller either! Massaging affects the surrounding structures too, which is why it can feel better. Try stretching the adductors on the inside of the leg, which pull the knee inwards. Strengthening the muscles around the hip which attach into the ITB is the best option.
A few key points; 1. With static stretching, hold for 20-30 seconds, 2-4x. 2. Come into a stretch gently, don’t push hard into it. 3. Stretching before riding isn’t useful, best to be warmed up. (dynamic stretching could be done however). 4. After a really hard session or race, only do a gentle stretch as the muscles will be ‘damaged’ from the effort and hard stretching will only add to that. 5. Do stretches properly. You may find that you are not as flexible as you thought! 6. If you have an injury such as a muscle tear, DON’T stretch it!
I start at the bottom and work upwards. ‘Releasing’ the plantar fascia on the underside of the feet. Not really a stretch, but this is where that continuous line of tissue starts. Use a hockey ball, golf ball or similar, stand on the ball and roll it across the underside of the foot, 3- 5 minutes each foot. There will be painful spots!
Moving onto the calves: I stretch both at the same time to maintain equal flexibility. and it avoids pelvic rotation when stretching. Point feet forward, inside edge parallel with each other (avoids dropping arches to get more flexibility). Go slowly into the stretch, keeping heals on the floor.
Hamstrings: bend from the hip, not the upper back! Look forward and keep the back straight. Keep the back foot straight too, which may challenge your balance! Keep the foot pointed down or you'll be pulling on the neural structures too (felt as tightness usually at the back of the knee). Mobilising 'tight' neural structures is another article.
A good all in one stretch for the quadriceps, hip flexors and upper trunk, the kneeling stretch. Keeping the pelvis in a good position is important as is not hyper extending the back to get further. A good starting position for the back foot is up on tip toes, but depending on your flexibility, the foot is placed higher, i.e. on a sofa. Stretch up tall with both arms to lengthen through the anterior trunk tissues as well as the hip flexors. Try tightening your bottom muscles before coming into the stretch, this will increase the stretch as it 'sets' the pelvis in a good position.
[caption id="attachment_8983" align="aligncenter" width="470"] tighten glute max before coming the stretch[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_8999" align="aligncenter" width="470"] add in rotation to stretch through lateral structures. Avoid rotating the pelvis[/caption]
Adductors:A much neglected stretch and muscle group. Sit up tall (will make it harder, but good body position is important for lower back and diaphragm) and slowly push knees downwards. Careful as a strong stretch!
Piriformis (external rotators)/gluteal max: Wrap a belt around your foot. For piriformis, take your knee across the body, then rotate the leg towards your opposite shoulder, keeping the pelvis on the floor. Use your other hand around the knee for support/greater stretch. Avoid lifting the pelvis, keep it flat on the floor.
[caption id="attachment_8998" align="aligncenter" width="470"] starting position for both stretches[/caption]
For gluteal max, bring your knee closer to your chest to start then repeat as above, so knee comes closer to the opposite shoulder.
Tightness anteriorally at the shoulder can contribute to lower back pain, as well as upper back issues. Pectoralisminor with its attachments from the corocoid process of the scapula to ribs 3 to 5 draws the scapula forward and downwards.
[caption id="attachment_8980" align="aligncenter" width="470"] should feel a stretch down the front of the pectorials[/caption]
This is a great one as a rotational stretch. Make sure you sit up tall, avoid slumping. Use your elbow to pull the knee across and the other arm to control trunk rotation.
There are a number of variants of some of these stretches, as well dynamic stretching, but I have found these to be a good place to start. We'll follow up with some more advanced routines and neural mobilisations.