"Try to touch your toes. Now put your foot on the bike staddle and bend forward. Now, hold that position."
The above is a pre-ride stretching routine for many cyclists. Newsflash: this type of stretching does more harm than good before and is best left until after the ride.
Most experienced cyclists perform some form of stretching exercise before and after a ride. However, unbeknownst to them, it's often the wrong type. If you find that your biking performance is not showing any improvement, take a look at your stretch routine. The most common mistake that cyclists make is performing static stretches before a ride. Recent studies in The Journal of Sports Medicine have found that prolonged static stretching before cycling leads to lowered performance with a higher risk for injury. At the same time, performed after a ride they can promote faster recovery.
Why is stretching so important for cyclists?
Stretching is a form of exercise that is designed to elongate and increase elasticity in targeted muscles and tendons. Stretching helps to warm up or cool down muscles, connective tissues, and joints, giving you greater range of motion and enhanced flexibility, which aids in both recovery and injury prevention. The posture and physical intensity of riding a bike typically results in lower back and hamstring pain; in some long-term cases, spinal posture can even be affected. If pain avoidance and increased flexibility aren’t good enough reasons for you to adopt a stretching routine, then consider the fact that such neglect could have long term consequences that could impact your quality of life, such as spinal misalignment. It’s critical for cyclists to incorporate stretching into their exercise routines to reduce the likelihood of succumbing to such conditions. One simple way to get a general idea of your lower back and hamstring flexibility is with the Sit and Reach Test.
Developed in 1952, the Sit and Reach Test is one of the most long-standing, commonly used methods to assess lower back and hamstring flexibility. While the position you’re in when engaging in this test isn’t especially applicable to real-life physical functions, the database of results is so substantive that it can still be used to get a ballpark range of your flexibility and to see how it compares to others in the same age and gender group. Additionally, it’s a simple way to track flexibility over time. Most physiologists, sports medicine specialists, and fitness trainers will have a specially designed sit and reach testing box. If you prefer to assess your flexibility from the comfort of your home, you can either purchase or make your own. Regardless of how or where you gather data about your flexibility, if you consider yourself a cyclist, make it as much of a priority as dental or visual health. (Because in a lot of ways, it is).
Why is stretching so confusing for cyclists?
If you’re a cyclist and are confused about how to incorporate stretching into your regular cycling routine, you’re not alone. For many, it’s easier to ignore the body’s need to stretch than it is to learn how to do it - and that’s just what they do. The truth is that stretching is a highly misunderstood phase of the exercise program and this leads many to question its efficacy. The four main reasons for this confusion are:
- Stretching relevance: How does stretching affect my ride, recovery, and overall physical health?
- Stretching scheduling: Does it really matter when I stretch?
- Stretching type: Can’t I just do those stretches I used to do in highschool?
- Stretching timing: Can I just hold the stretch for however long feels good?
Whether it’s determining which stretch, the duration of each stretch, or when to perform it, the rest of this article is meant to eliminate (or at least reduce) some of the confusion surrounding cycling-related stretching. Once you know and understand the different kinds of stretching, adopting a stretching regimen will be easier.
Types of stretches
The answers to many stretching questions can be determined once you know what kind of stretching you need to do. Before looking at specific exercises, it is important to understand how each type of stretch differs from the others. They can be separated by their range of motion, the level of muscle engagement, and overall goals. The three main kinds of stretches are dynamic, static, and ballistic.
Dynamic stretches are the pre-workout portion of your stretching routine and focus on raising the temperature of your muscles; you might know them as “warming up.” When you warm up, post-ride soreness and stiffness decreased because dynamic stretches aim to increase joint range of motion and overall flexibility. While there is still debate as to whether or not it prevents injury, there is no question that joint range of motion and flexibility are important in maintaining good physical fitness and health. Incorporating dynamic stretching into an exercise routine is also known to improve speed, agility, and acceleration, while helping to increase and lengthen muscle and improve posture.
Dynamic stretches are meant to help your body prepare for a particular movement and should be similar to whatever physical activity in which you’re about to participate. They are performed by tightening up muscles and then moving joints in a full range of motion. Cat-cows and leg swings into their exercise routines are actually practicing dynamic stretching.
Static stretches should be the post-workout part of your regimen and make up what is commonly referred to as the “cool down” portion. The focus is on increasing blood flow to the joints and muscles after physical activity, which ultimately reduces tension, cramps, and inflammation while also shortening recovery time. The increased blood flow improves flexibility in the affected area, as well as overall strength and performance.
Static stretches work by pushing the muscle fibers and joints to their limits, but at no point should you exceed those limits. Over time, the increased tolerance to such stretches allows your body to perform more rigorous exercise for extended periods of time. During the actual stretch, blood flow is temporarily reduced due to compression of capillaries. Once the stretch is released, the blood flow to the area nearly doubles, delivering more nutrients and oxygen and removing metabolites.
The most intensive of stretching methods, usually employed by football and basketball players, and even martial artists, ballistic stretches are designed to increase the range of motion specific to performance. Ballistic stretches rely on the momentum produced by a moving body and are performed with extra force. The momentum basically bypasses the “stretch sensors” in the muscles that would normally trigger a protective reaction to make the muscle “pull back.” Stretches performed with this much force can damage soft tissues such as ligaments and tendons, and create excessive tears in muscles that will eventually lead to increased inflammation and reduced flexibility. There’s no reason for cyclists to do ballistic stretches.
Timing is everything
Before hitting the mat with some stretches, it’s imperative that you know some simple stretching rules. Remember - there’s a method to all of this madness. Simply engaging in stretches that feel or look right can do more harm than good. Believe it or not, when it comes to your body, timing is everything.
Ensure that warm up and cool down stretches are reserved for those specific times: pre and post-ride. Pre-workout stretches focus on warming up the body for increased range of motion and flexibility. Post-workout stretches, on the other hand, focus on gradually lengthening your muscles after they’ve been continuously contracting during a rigorous exercise. Because each aims to accomplish a different goal, dynamic and static stretches simply cannot be used interchangeably.
Even though stretch duration might not seem like a significant detail, it is. According to The American Academy of Sports Medicine (ACSM), stretches should be held for at least 15 seconds and no more than 30 seconds. Do a shorter hold stretch pre-workout and a longer hold stretch post-workout. Apply the same logic to the intensity of the stretch. Don’t assume that holding a stretch for a shorter or longer period of time will give you a better or worse stretch; that’s not how it works and such assumptions could either reduce the effectiveness of your stretch or even result in injury. An effective warm-up and cool down has a number of important key elements that work together to minimize sports injury and prepare your body for physical activity. Executing these key elements in the correct order and for the right amount of time is critical.
Stretching exercises: Warm ups and cool downs
Depending on your training parameters, such as frequency and duration, and your individual needs, there are certain stretches you may find are more integral to your physical health than others. For example, recreational cyclists might find that they only need to focus on stretching the most used muscles - the larger leg and buttock muscles. Competitive cyclists, on the other hand, are unlikely to benefit from only stretching those two muscle groups, as more time in the saddle results in back, chest, and arm stiffness and pain. The stretches below are all geared toward the needs of cyclists, and when performed correctly, should not only provide relief to the most common cycling related aches and pains, but also prevent common cycling related injuries.
Warm Up Dynamic Stretch Sequence
As mentioned earlier, dynamic stretches are the safest, most effective types of stretches to do prior to hopping onto your bike. Whenever performing any stretch, always make sure your muscles are warmed up. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the best pre-stretch warm up is an easy spin on your bike. If you’re meeting up with a group ride, pedal there and do some stretches while waiting for the rest of the group to show up. Remember: you’re just warming up right now, so don’t push yourself too hard at this point. Also ensure that you always maintain control of your movements. (Don’t fling or throw your body parts into your stretch). When performing any stretch, you should only feel light resistance - not pain. Keep these points in mind when going through the below routine.
Anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time in the saddle knows that the hunched over riding posture is rough on the back. Cat-Cow helps warm up back muscles, while elongating the spine in both forward and backward directions. This is important because it addresses the stiff lower and middle back, as well as tense traps, that often result from time spent in the saddle.
- Get on all fours. Ensure that you are in proper form: shoulders over wrists and knees below hips.
- As you inhale, slowly arch your back and allow your stomach to drop toward the ground. At the same time, raise your hips and shoulders
- As you exhale, round your spine and tuck your pelvis. This is essentially the opposite movement of what you did in step two.
- Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.
The aggressive riding posture of being hunched over your handlebars doesn’t just take its toll on your back - it also affects your chest. This chest stretch addresses this often overlooked muscle group and provides the added bonus of stretching the legs and back.
- Stand facing the side of your bike. Your feet should be directly below your hips.
- Grab onto your bike and lean forward, bending at the waist, until your back is parallel to the ground. If you prefer a more narrow grip, grab the top tube of your bike. If you prefer a wider grip, you can grab either your handlebars or seat.
- With slight flexion in the elbows, press your chest down toward the ground.
- Hold for three seconds, stand up, and then repeat five to ten times.
With cycling using primarily the glutes, hips, and hamstrings, it’s no surprise that so many cyclists suffer from tightness and pain in these regions. High Knees are another one of those super simple stretches that works wonders. You can think of yourself as riding a bike when doing this one.
- Begin by standing in place. Lift one bent knee at a time, as high as possible, without pain.
- Gradually increase your pace and begin hopping from one leg to another, still kicking [alternating] knees up as high as possible.
- Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
It should come as no surprise that so many of these stretches address the legs, in addition to another muscle group. Leg swings are another example of a stretch that addresses multiple regions that need TLC. They’re a simple way to alleviate tight hips, thereby increasing hip mobility. In addition to being a highly effective hip stretching exercise, a set of leg swings also show some love to your hamstrings, quads, and calves.
- Stand on one side of your bike. Hold the seat for stability.
- Keeping your leg straight and extending with each swing, swing the exterior leg forward and backward. Even though you are swinging your leg, it is important that you do so in a controlled manner.
- Repeat 10 times.
- Turn to face your bike. Now, swing your leg side to side with control. This move is similar to the previous one, but also stretches your groin.
- Repeat 10 times.
- Switch sides and repeat steps one through five.
Another commonly affected body part that results from cycling is the latissimus dorsi, often referred to as the lats. Your lats extend from your shoulders down to the sides of your back.
- Stand up. Extend your arms above your head, reaching your fingertips to the sky and keeping your biceps next to your ears.
- Now shrug your shoulders up and down.
- Do this for 30 seconds.
Cool down static stretch sequence
A cool-down routine should be viewed as the first step in preparing for your next ride. It helps to gradually return the body to its normal state: it removes metabolic waste from your muscles, redistributes the blood around the body, allows you to wind down mentally, gives you time to slowly lower your heart rate, and perhaps even reflect on your performance. Static stretches accomplish exactly that. When completing static stretches, slowly take muscles to the end of their ranges. As with other stretches, you should only feel light resistance and no pain. Also be sure to remain in a static, or unmoving, position; this means no bouncing, regardless of how tempting it might be.
Spinal twist wtretch
This back twist stretch is efficient and hits multiple sweet spots: glutes, lower back, and obliques.
- Begin by sitting on the floor, both legs extended in front of you. Bend your right knee over your left leg, placing your right foot flat on the ground. Finish getting into position by twisting your body until you can place your left elbow on your right knee.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, not to exceed 60 seconds.
- Switch sides.
The cobra pose is one of the most well-known in yoga, and with good reason. It’s an effective way to address muscle tension in the abs, chest, and shoulders, all of which can become stiff and painful, due to being in the riding position for prolonged periods of time.
- Lie on your stomach. Place your hands directly beneath your shoulders with your fingers facing forward. Your arms should be pulled into your chest.
- Pressing into your hands, squeeze your elbows into your torso while lifting your head, chest, and shoulders. You can lift your torso slightly, halfway, or completely up. Listen to your body and determine what’s best for you. To deepen the pose even further, you can drop your head back. Make sure you elbows remain slightly bent.
- Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Repeat one or two times, depending on your needs.
Lateral neck stretch
There are plenty of neck stretches out there, but one of the most basic and effectual ones is the lateral neck stretch. This stretch not only stretches the sides of your neck, but it stretches your shoulders, too. Adopting a good neck stretch into your flexibility routine doesn’t just increase the likelihood that you’ll maintain neck mobility, even after the longest of rides, but it reduces the muscle tightness and knots that can result in tension headaches.
- Begin with either sitting or standing, arms alongside your body.
- Tighten your abs to establish and maintain a straight spine. While engaging your abs, also pull your shoulders back and down.
- Now slowly bend your neck, bringing your right ear toward your right shoulder, all the while sustaining the posture described in step two.
- Hold on the right side for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Perform on the left side.
- Continue for 2 to 4 reps on each side.
If you find that you need to deepen the stretch, use your hand to apply light pressure to your head. You can take it one step further by slowly and slightly lifting your chin while in the stretch.
Standing quad stretch
The quads are one of the most obvious body parts that require a good cool down after a long bike ride. The standing quad stretch brings us back to the basics and should be a part of every cyclist’s post-ride routine. A good set of quad stretches ought to bring relief to the quads, hip flexors, and ankles and can prevent related back pain.
- Begin by standing on your right foot. Use a chair or wall for stability, if you find you need it.
- Bend the left leg back toward your butt and hold it with the left hand. To hold your leg, it’s best to grab your shin, but if that proves too difficult, you can latch onto your foot instead. Your thighs should be together with your knee pointed down.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Switch sides.
- Repeat one to five times on each side.
Be mindful to maintain correct posture: make sure your knee doesn’t come out to the side, that your back doesn’t arch, and that you don’t lock the knee you’re standing on.
Straight-leg calf stretch
Last but not least is the straight leg calf stretch, a highly effective move that provides much needed relief. Not only does a long bike ride cause tightness and discomfort, but the very act of daily walking can be stress-inducing to the calves and ankles, making this stretch even more important.
- Stand facing a wall, arms straight in front of you and hands flat on the wall.
- Step forward with your right leg, bending your knee and keeping your foot flat on the ground, while extending your left leg straight back. Your left leg should remain straight. Concurrently, lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in your left calf.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Switch legs.
- Repeat three times on each side.
Remember, stretching is only one part of an effective warm-up and cool-down routine. Its place in both phases of the routine is specific and dependent on the other components. Once you understand the role of stretching, the types of stretches your body would most benefit from, and how to perform each safely, you can reap its many benefits, including improved recovery and consciously avoiding stiff, tight muscles and joints, precursors to multiple types of injuries among cyclists, including lifelong injuries and conditions. If you find that you’re experiencing pain, consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise or stretch routine.