Stretching for Cyclists: Dispelling the Myths
By Richard Albrow
I know you have read articles in magazines or on line that have poked and prodded at the subject of whether a cyclist should stretch, and for the most part they have concluded that there is no benefit. Unfortunately the majority of articles have a short sighted view and limited knowledge, stating that there are no performance benefits and could even cause injury!
The lack of performance increase is likely, as the very act of cycling has such a limited range of motion (ROM). In fact the only benefit in performance may be a better aerodynamic position in the drops or the TT position. However, two other major considerations need to be addressed on the benefits side; firstly restoring flexibility after hours stuck in this limited kyphotic position and secondly allowing us to perform as human beings away from the bike. How many “highly trained” cyclists get injured on the bike versus off the bike, either playing with their kids or doing other activities?
One big issue is the very nature of cycling. We pedal a circle with our legs roughly 35cm across, hour after hour, bent over handle bars. We vary our hand position, sit up and even stand up, but our feet remain locked in the circle no matter what we do. From this activity, where muscles are worked in a very limited ROM, the muscles will end up shorter than when you started. You have all had it when you get off the bike, you struggle to stand up straight. You need to stretch out and get back some of that lost flexibility. We need to take those short muscles and return them to their original length so you can now function off the bike like a “normal” human being.
BEING A NORMAL HUMAN (away from the bike)
Let’s examine that word “normal”. What I am saying here applies to “normal” posture, flexibility or ROM. The adage of a bicycle wheel is quite applicable here as our body and bones (rim of the wheel) go where our muscle length tension (spoke of the wheel) allow them to. So if we have tight muscles in part of the body opposed by longer weaker ones on the other side of the body (rim), then the tight muscles will force the bones to move out of correct alignment and into poor posture/alignment. The “normals” for the relative positions of bones, posture, flexibility of humans has been well researched over many years, so when we measure certain parameters we can see if they fall in the normal range or not. Good posture for example, viewed from the side, has a plumb line running from the lateral maleolus (ankle bone), through the mid knee, greater trochantor of the femur, mid shoulder and mid ear. If one of these points falls off this norm, then we have to work out what is tight or loose to allow this faulty posture, and correct it.
At the same time we should be concerned that our hips are level (viewed from the back), with a slight anterior pelvic tilt (viewed from the side), our spine has some curve in the lumbar and thoracic, but not too much and our head is not too far forward. To elaborate on those above;
- Too much anterior pelvic tilt will hinder lower abdominal function, and allow medial rotation of the femur when standing
- A pelvis that is not level will lead to lateral spinal curvature along with issues with the sacroiliac joint (SIJ)
- Too much or too little curvature of the spine can lead to premature wear on the discs, potential disc bulges, reduced flexibility and dysfunction of the shoulders
STRETCHING FOR YOUR LONG-TERM HEALTH
As you can see, we need to focus on ourselves as functional human, and long term health, as opposed to just if we can produce more watts on the bike.
When stretching there are right and wrong ways and to do it, but here are the basics.
- Only stretch when you are warm, so this could be prior to a workout (but only after you have warmed up for 10 minutes), or post workout when you are still warm from the workout.
- Timing and length of holds are important too. If you are stretching before the workout, let’s say you are doing a TT and you know your position is improved by stretching your hamstrings, then warm up and then do some hamstring stretches (either still clipped in on the bike or off the bike) but only hold for 5-10 seconds, do both sides twice
- If you are stretching post workout, then you will still be warm (don’t delay, best time to stretch and speed recovery) and the stretches can be held up to 10-20 seconds.
- If you really want to work on your flexibility, developmental stretches are best done in the evening, after a nice warm shower or bath, and the stretches should be held a long time, 30-60 seconds
As you can imagine the only way to get truly assessed is in person, but for now I will have to make some generalities to benefit the majority. I will list each muscle group below that I feel cyclists need to pay attention to and then how to stretch. This is not an exhaustive list but these are the major ones to focus on;
- If you are naturally very flexible/hyper-mobile, stretch very little and for short duration, or not at all. There is a upper limit of how much flexibility you want as this leads to instability and potential injury to those joints
Quadriceps and Primary Hip Flexors (the most used muscles in cycling!)
Location: front and top of thigh into front of hip
Stretch: kneel in front of wall/couch with knees about 6-9” from it. Put one foot on wall/couch, the other flat on floor in lunge position. We now need a posterior pelvic tilt (tuck the pelvis under like a scolded dog) and you will feel a stronger stretch to the top of the thigh. Lastly we need to side bend away from the leg that is being stretched.
Location: back of thigh
Stretch: lay down on the floor with both legs straight. Using a stretching strap or large towel, loop the middle of the strap around the bottom of one leg, and hold both ends in your hand. Gently raise the leg with the strap on it, but keep the knee locked firmly and dorsi flex the foot (pull toes towards shin), until you feel a stretch.
Do both sides twice, see notes below for how long
Location: you’re sitting on it
Stretch: You will use the 90/90 pose for this. Sit on the floor and maneuver the legs in to the 90/90 position shown. Then keep an arch in the low back and try to bend forward at the hip along the same leg of the butt check you are sitting on. Do both sides twice.
Calves (Gastroc and Soleus)
Location: back of lower leg
Stretch: find a step, and one leg at a time, allow the foot to be supported by the ball of the foot as the heel dangles in mid air off the step. Now, with the leg straight, push down with your body weight (gently) until you feel the stretch in the muscle high up on the back of the lower leg (Gastroc) hold and then bend the knee of the same leg driving the heel down and the bent knee forward at the same time, to feel the stretch slightly lower in the calf (Soleus).
ITB (Iliotibial band)
Location: side of leg at top
Stretch: remember here we are not actually stretching the ITB but the muscles that tension it, tensor fascia latae and gluteus maximus. So to stretch it and its muscles we have to swing the leg underneath the body. To do this, stand side on to a wall at arm’s length. Step the outside leg in front of the other and half way to the wall and bend arm at elbow. Then put the outside arm onto the outside hip and push the hip toward the wall. Try to keep the hips level while doing this, dropping the inside hip will make this less effective. Do both sides twice
Location: front of torso
Stretch: now this stretch has a double effect, one is to stretch the abdominals, that have become shorter and tighter while riding, and a second is to recenter discs of the back. To do this, lay face down on the floor, position your hands as if you were going to do pushups. Straighten the arms as if you were doing a pushup BUT leave your hips on the ground so you back arches backwards.Breathe out as you straighten your arms and in on the way down. Do this 10 times.