Stretch Yourself

The human body isn’t designed to be hunched over a bike for hours, so Sam Murphy talks to the experts on how to stay supple and stretchy.

Cyclists may be renowned for their supreme cardiovascular fitness, phenomenal power output and colossal thighs – but when it comes to flexibility, it has to be said that most of us are decidedly lacking. It’s not surprising when you consider what riding a bike entails.

“It’s a repetitive action performed through a limited range of motion, which means that the legs are neither fully extended nor fully flexed,” explains Rebecca Bogue, who runs Yoga for Cyclists classes. “Joints are never taken through their full range of motion.”

To compound the problem, cycling is one of the few activities in which muscles contract only concentrically (while shortening) and not eccentrically (while lengthening). Over time, this can result in what’s known as ‘adaptive shortening’, the process by which muscle fibres physically shorten.

But does it matter? It depends who you ask. Scientists still hotly debate the topic of whether stretching is beneficial for athletes, detrimental or makes no difference either way. Some recent research on runners, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, found that those who performed the worst in a ‘sit and reach’ test (a measure of hamstring and lower back flexibility) had the greatest running economy, a measure that could be described as their ‘miles per gallon’ rate. The theory is that tight leg, hip and trunk musculature increases elastic energy return. However, there’s a major reason why the same might not apply on a bike.

“Riding a bike is not something that we evolved to do,” says Mark Simpson, strength and conditioning coach at the English Institute of Sport, who works with the British Cycling team. “It’s not a natural movement like running or walking, and is therefore more likely to cause muscular imbalances and postural changes.”

As an example, the forward-leaning, crouched position adopted by roadies and track cyclists tends to make the hip flexors tighten and shorten (“every cyclist I know has hip flexor tightness,” says Simpson) causing an anterior pelvic tilt and an excessively arched lower back.

“Postural changes like this can lead to chronic problems such as lower back pain, that will affect your daily activities, not to mention your riding, eventually,” he adds.

Bogue agrees. “If muscles get tight, they pull on bones and put things out of alignment, increasing the risk of pain, discomfort and injury,” she says.

But poor flexibility and its consequences don’t just give you bad posture and hike up your injury risk – your cycling performance is at stake, too. “You need a good range of motion in the hips and lower back to achieve an aerodynamic time-trial position,” says Graham Anderson, a physiotherapist who has worked with everyone from Olympic cyclists to weekend warriors. “Without it, your power output will be reduced because you won’t be able to get maximal force from the gluteal muscles. What’s more, if you have a stiff lower back, you’ll typically overreach with the arms, putting too much weight on the hands and causing tightness across the upper back and neck.”

For Simpson, who works mainly with BMXers and sprint cyclists, flexibility is also important for cross-training. “To perform a squat, for example, you need good ankle, knee and hip flexibility,” he explains. “If the ankle joint is tight, it puts too much pressure on the knee.”

While you may not need to be able to wrap your feet around your shoulders or bend over backwards to ride your bike, you do need to maintain – or, more likely, regain – what Simpson calls ‘normal’ range of motion in the joints, in order to ride comfortably and efficiently and to be able to adapt your riding position where necessary. You also need to consider the joints and muscles that cycling doesn’t use. “In cycling, you’re only moving your joints in a straight line – there’s no other plane of motion, such as rotational or lateral movement,” explains Anderson. “It’s important to take your joints through these neglected ranges too – otherwise flexibility will diminish.”

While Anderson believes there is no single ‘recipe’ for optimal flexibility that suits everyone, in Bogue’s experience there are some key areas to address. “The areas that are tight in cyclists are pretty universal,” she says. Stiff quads, hip flexors, hamstrings and lower backs are top of the list, accompanied by tight ‘closed’ shoulders and chest muscles.

So what do we do to redress the balance? “The key thing is to reverse the cycle posture,” she says. “For example, stretches that extend the lower back are a great antidote to the flexed, forward-leaning position on the bike.” A cyclist herself, Bogue has experienced the stiffness and tightness that can result from hours in the saddle, and believes yoga is the complement. “It’s a way of elongating the muscles, but also enhances your body awareness, so you notice what feels tight or stiff and know how to alleviate it.”

When to stretch
After a ride – or as a stand-alone session after warming up – use static stretching to help restore muscles to their ‘resting’ length, or to lengthen shortened muscles.

  • How long? To allow time for the ‘stretch response’ to take place, which occurs once the muscle relaxes and stops trying to protect itself. Aim for at least 20 seconds.
  • How many? The American College of Sports Medicine says 2-4 times for each stretch.
  • How often? ACSM advises flexibility training two or three times per week.

1. Calf stretch into a wall

Stand facing a wall with toes pointing forward. Place your hands flat against the wall at shoulder height. Bring one leg behind you then place the foot flat on the floor (making sure your toes are still pointed straight forward). Slowly lean forward over your front leg, but keep your back knee straight and your heel flat on the floor. You should feel this stretch in the big muscle of your calf (gastrocnemius). You can deepen it by bending your front knee.

2. Downward facing dog

This relaxes the entire spinal column, opens the hips and stretches the back of the legs. Begin on all fours with your hands in front of the shoulders and toes tucked forwards. Breathe out, lift your knees from the floor, straighten your legs and raise your bottom, working to press your heels to the floor. Push through the shoulders so the bottom is pushed back and the stretch can be felt through the back and hamstrings. Repeat 4 to 5 times.

3. Expanded leg pose

Begin with your feet wide apart (the wider, the easier it will be). Placing your hands on your hips, inhale deeply and then bend forward on the exhale, bringing the torso only as far down as you can while maintaining a long spine. If your hamstrings are really tight, the knees can be bent, releasing back tension. Place your hands on a pile of books in front of you. Work towards eventually placing your hands in between your feet.

4. Quad stretch

Start on all fours with the soles of your feet against a wall. Take your right foot off the floor and place it against the wall with your toes pointing up the wall. Slide your knee down towards the floor, making sure that the shin and knee are in contact with the wall at all times. Put your left foot flat on the floor in front of you. Take at least five breaths. Gradually take your hands off the floor, and on an inhale place your hands lightly on your left knee.

5. Camel pose

This yoga pose opens the groin, thighs and back and stretches the chest, the shoulders and neck. Sit in a kneeling position with your feet against a wall. Slowly bring the thighs and torso upright. Inhale and gradually move your back into an arc on the exhale until the back of your head makes contact with the wall behind. If you can’t reach your heels, place a pile of books on either side of your shins and reach those. Take at least five breaths.

6. Seated glute stretch and hip opener

Sit on a chair, with the sole of the right foot on the floor in line with the right knee. Place your left ankle on and just beyond the right knee. Keeping the spine as long as possible, inhale then fold at the hips on the exhale, bringing your torso over your left shin. Take at least five breaths. As you relax into the stretch you may eventually be able to place both forearms on the legs.

7. Revolved belly pose

This stretch releases tension in the spinal column, hips and shoulders and relieves discomfort in the lumbar spine. Lie on your back with your knees bent, bring them into your chest. Inhale and, with the next exhalation, roll your knees to the right side and rest them on a pillow. Stretch both arms out on the floor to open the space between the shoulder blades then slowly straighten the legs. Aim to touch your hand with your toes.

8. Supported bound angle pose

This stretch releases tension in the diaphragm, chest, shoulders, groin and hips. It can be held for as long as you like. Sit on the floor directly in front of the end of a bolster (or a few folded blankets) and bring the soles of the feet together so that your legs form a diamond shape. Reclining on your elbows, lie back onto the bolster and stay like that for 5 to 10 minutes. Breathe deeply and relax.

Discover more great features on every aspect of cycling and get ahead of the pack with a subscription to Cycling Plus magazine. Prudential RideLondon participants can click here for an exclusive offer.