However, I would argue that we are regular functioning people first, and cyclists second, and we therefore definitely have the need for some form of regular stretching in our weekly routine for a number of reasons:
- Stretching helps improve poor posture.
- Stretching can aid in pain relief in some circumstances.
- Stretching may reduce risk of injury.
- Stretching can improve mechanical efficiency and power output.
- Stretching can improve range of motion and muscle stiffness.
Whilst you may not need to be able to wrap your feet round your head to ride your bike, you do need good range of motion and flexibility to ride efficiently and generate power. You need a good range of movement in the lower back to achieve a good TT position. Hamstring tightness can be another limiter in the ability for a rider to get in to a lower and more aerodynamic TT position.
A stiff lower back can result in overreaching, which in turn can lead to stiffness in the upper back and neck.
The pedaling motion on a bike has a small range of movement. The muscles used in a restricted range for long periods may tighten or feel uncomfortable, and these tighter muscles may cause other aches and pains. The main muscles which have a tendency to become shortened as a result of repetitive pedaling action are the hamstrings and hip flexors.
Look at most cyclists and you will see one thing in common – their body is typically hunched over the handlebars for most of the ride. This places the lumbar spine (lower spine) in a state of flexion. Those of you who have a desk bound job may find that you have a less than perfect sitting posture, possibly slouching at your desk for up to eight hours a day –this also places the lumbar spine in a state of flexion. The lumbar spine naturally needs a variety of different postures to maintain good health. Generally speaking the lower back normally has a small arch in it – this is referred to as neutral spine. A neutral spine places the least amount of stress on the body and allows activation of the right muscles during movement.
Your tightest muscles may be hindering the performance of other muscles. The hip flexors are a group of muscles that are responsible for pulling the leg up towards the abdomen, core stability and power. These muscles are also used in everyday activities and are put in a state of excessive shortening by prolonged periods of sitting. Tight hip flexors reduce your effective reach on the bike, may compromise your TT position and may compromise your power output. Lower back soreness can be an indicator of hip flexor tightness.
Hopefully by now I have convinced you that stretching should be part of your routine, but when should you do it and for how long?
When to stretch?
There has been vigorous debate about when to stretch – before or after exercise?
Stretching after your ride when your muscles and connective tissue are warm is the best time to include a static stretching routine.
The optimal time is immediately after you finish your ride and cool down, but if that is not possible, then within an hour after the ride, following a hot shower will suffice.
How long should you hold each stretch for?
At least 20 seconds, building up to 90 seconds once you can keep good form in the position.
The stretch should be taken to the point where resistance is felt, but no pain should be felt. If you do feel a sharp or intense sensation, then back off the stretch.
It takes 20 seconds for the stretch reflex to take place. The stretch reflex is an automatic response from the body, which is designed to protect the muscles and prevent damage. When the brain receives information that the muscle is being stretched, its automatic response is to contract the muscle to protect it from being pulled forcefully or beyond its normal range. It takes about 20 seconds for this signal to abate and for the muscle to lengthen.
It is important to NOT bounce during any of these stretches. Bouncing will increase the risk of injury to the muscles.
Back & Shoulder Stretch
Hold on to your bike in front of you with your hands shoulder width apart. Keep your feet directly underneath your hips and a slight bend in the knees. If your hamstrings are particularly tight then maintain even more of a bend in the knees. Keep most of the weight on your feet and push the hips back as you extend the arms horizontally forward. Make sure the neck is in a neutral position looking down towards the ground.
Using your bike or a nearby wall for stability, with the right hand grasp top of the right forefoot and gently pull foot towards your butt. The quads are heavily used in cycling so it is important to go very slow in this stretch. Keep a slight bend in the standing knee. Keep the knees together and gently push the hips forward. You should feel a stretch in the bent leg quad and the front of the hips.
Swap sides to repeat on opposite leg.
Hold onto to your bike or a wall for stability. Stand tall and whilst bending the left leg, cross your right leg over your left, placing your right foot on top of the bent leg thigh. For some of you this might be as far as you can go. As you become more flexible you will be able to sit down and push the hips back. Keep the toes of the right leg flexed. Swap legs to repeat on opposite side.
If this stretch is too difficult then try the lying glute stretch. Start by lying on the floor on your back , with both legs straight. Bend the right leg and with both hands take hold of the knee and gently pull towards your shoulder. You should feel a stretch in the right glute.
Swap legs to repeat on opposite side.
Place one leg in front of the other, front leg straight, back leg slightly bent and front foot flexed. Keeping your back in neutral position, push the hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstring of the front leg. You do not need to sink down too low in this stretch. The stretch comes from pushing the hips back.
Swap legs to repeat on other side.
Get in to the half kneeling position with your left leg in front and your left knee directly over your left ankle.
Contract your abs and glutes at the same time – this will help get the pelvis into a posterior tilt position (which will feel like you are tucking your tailbone under). Keep your body tall. You should feel a stretch in the front area of the thigh on the bent leg.
Resist the urge to lean forwards in to this stretch; most people are too tight for this.
Guide your hips with your hands, with your fingers on the front of the hips and thumbs on the back. The posterior tilt action should make your thumbs move down.
Repeat on the opposite side.
Spine twists help elongate and stretch the lower back, as well as stretching the shoulders, hips and obliques.
Start lying on your back, draw both knees in so that feet are flat of the floor, and just wider than hip width apart. Arms should be level with shoulder and palms facing up. If you have tight shoulders then move the arms towards the feet until both shoulders are comfortably flat of on the floor.
Let both knees gently drop to the left, keeping both shoulders on the floor. Look to the right.
This stretch can be performed with the feet wider than hip width apart – it will then focus the stretch on the hip flexors and hip rotators.
Repeat on the opposite side.