As with many types of sports and physical activities, you’re bound to experience some stiff and tight muscles. If you’ve come across this article then you’re probably looking for some relief from those aching muscles!
Most cyclists often bypass the stretching – suit up, jump on the bike and off you go. Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this as well!
People generally think of cycling as a lower body activity only. However, after a long ride, you’ll feel it all through your back, shoulders and neck as well. Check out these full body stretches to help you feel better and recover faster so you’re back on the bike in no time!
Tight Muscles From Cycling
Before we dive into the stretches, a little bit of an anatomy lesson. We’ll start from the bottom of your body.
The main muscles that power the pedaling motion are the quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius and soleus in the calf. Depending on where you’re at with your cycling journey, you might be a bit more quadricep or hamstring dominant. See some tips for the Red Bull Team on efficient pedaling here.
The next major set of muscles that cycling uses are your gluteal muscles (aka your bum!). The three muscles in the gluteal group (glutes) include the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Your hips and glutes are firing together throughout a ride to put power into each pedal stroke.
Next up is your core. It is a complex set of muscles, extending far beyond your six-pack abs. In the forward-leaning cycling position, your abs and lower back are fully engaged. The core stabilizes you whilst you ride and also allows you to pedal with more power and efficiency. A weak core can lead to a lot of lower back issues for cyclists, so do spend some time training it!
Last but not least is your upper body. You might not think much of it, but your arms (biceps and triceps) and the shoulders (deltoids) are also working during a ride. Whether that’s just to prop up your torso as you lean or supporting you whilst you change positions, it’s important to spend some time stretching these out as well.
What Causes It?
You have likely experienced this yourself, the more you ride, the tighter the leg muscles. The issue with cycling is that you’re in a fixed forward-leaning position for lengthy periods of time. This, along with the repetitive pedaling motion is a perfect recipe for tight muscles.
As a result of the forward lean position on a bike, your hips never get a chance to open up when you’re on a bike. The pedaling motion doesn’t allow for a complete range of motion for your hips and lower limbs. They end up in a shortened position throughout the ride and tighten up. Like many of you, after a morning ride, I’m usually stuck sitting in front of a screen all day. This just compounds the issue as your hips are still in the shortened position!
The quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, and hip rotators all take a beating during a riding session. If you don’t stretch at all, it can lead to a chronic shortening of your muscles. The issue then starts moving up the body. It starts with the tightening of your glutes. Eventually, it starts pulling on your lower back and continuing up the spine until you start experiencing neck pain whilst riding.
It can become difficult to stretch the muscles effectively if your limbs start becoming too tight. A small stretching habit could reduce your risk of injury and improve your performance!
Should I Stretch Before Or After Cycling?
We all know that warming up before a workout is crucial for preventing injuries as well as improving performance. But, how should we warm up?
Recent research suggests that static stretching prior to exercising can actually impede your performance. Instead, William Kormos, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Men’s Health Watch, suggests you should look to perform an active and gradually warm-up prior to any strenuous activities. In fact, stretching a cold, tight muscle could lead to injury.
So armed with this knowledge, we break down stretching into two distinct periods. A pre (dynamic) and post (static) stretching regimen. Done correctly, stretching will help increase your flexibility and range of motion by lengthening your muscles and ligaments.
Dynamic Stretches For Cyclists
Dynamic stretches are used to help warm up your body before exercising. It helps to get the blood circulating and warms up the muscles and joints for peak performance, decreases soreness and reduces the risk of injury. Think of it as a car warming up after a cold winter’s night :).
For cycling-specific dynamic stretches, you generally mimic the movement of the pedaling motion. However, since you’re not on the bike yet, you go through a full range of motion with these muscles and joints. More details on specific movements and stretches in the next section.
Static Stretches For Cyclists
You’re probably used to these types of stretches already from gym classes at school. Static stretches is where you stand, sit or lie down and hold a stretch for a short period of time.
As mentioned earlier, static stretches are more suited to your post ride recovery routine. When done as part of a cool down session, these types of stretches help realign muscle fibers and maintain normal range of motion. This realignment process is what helps to rehabilitate damaged tissue back to health. More on the science of what happens can be found here.
Ok, we’ve now covered off what happens to your muscles and why it’s beneficial to stretch. Let’s move onto the best stretches for cyclists to help recover faster.
Dynamic Warm Up Before You Ride
Warming up gets the body juices going and also prepares the mind for optimal cycling performance. Think of it as easing your body into the zone before a hard race or interval training session.
Here’s a great video by Dr. Alex Ritza for a quick 3 min warm up. If you’re rushed, just do 5 reps of each stretch, it’ll make a huge difference to your ride!
5 to 10 repetitions of each stretch (as shown in the video):
- Hip hinge – this warms up the spine and hamstrings
- Forward and backward leg swings – targets hamstrings, quads, core and lower back
- Side leg swings – targets the glutes, quads and hips
- Butt kicks – help increase the speed of hamstring contractions, beneficial for the pedaling motion
- Knee to chest raises – targets the hips to help with pedaling motion
- Modified standing cat cow – warm up spine and upper body
Static Stretches For Cyclists Post Ride
Here are my favorite static stretches that I usually do after a ride or whilst I’m watching TV at night. I’ve broken them down into key muscles groups:
Standing quad stretch – A simple stretch, but a goodie. Standing hip width apart, pull your left heel up towards your butt using your left hand. You can place your right hand on a wall or chair to help balance. Hold for 45-60 seconds, switch legs. Repeat 2-3 times depending on how your quads are feeling.
Standing wide leg forward bend – Step the legs 3-4 feet apart. With a flat back, lean forward until your hands touch the ground. You should be able to feel a deep stretch through the hamstrings and lower back.
Pigeon pose – A popular yoga pose, this stretch is great for opening up the hips and stretching the gluteus muscles. Step your right foot into a lunge position but instead of placing your foot down, bring your right leg towards your left hand. The outside of your right shin should now rest on the floor. The left leg stays behind you and straightens it out. Sit back, relax and you should feel a deep glute stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Standing wall calf stretch – Stand a couple feet away from a wall. Place your hands on the wall and bring your right toes up against the wall, tucking your heel underneath. Lean forward and you should feel a stretch through the right calf. Repeat on the other side.
Dragon pose – Great stretch for the hips and quads. Step your right foot forward into a lunge position, dropping the back left knee to the ground. Push your torso backwards until you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of your hip as well as the quads.
Frog pose – a very awkward looking pose, but very effective on the groin area. Put your hands and knees on the ground. Move your knees out as wide as possible and point your toes outwards. From here, sit back and push your butt towards your heels (i.e. you should look like a frog now!). You should feel a stretch through the groin and hips area.
If you’re looking for additional inspiration, here’s a great set of time-saving stretches by Shayne Gaffney.
Stretching is one of many great tools to help you recover after cycling. However, there’s a time and place for different types of stretches.
By using dynamic stretching as part of your warm-up, you can prime your body for peak performance whilst also reducing the risk of any injuries. On the other hand, static stretches are better utilized as a part of a cool down as it loosens and lengthens the muscles after a ride.
Keep cycling, but also remember to keep stretching!
Looking to take your rest and recovery even further? Check out these two articles: