As a cyclist (really, as a typical person), it's extremely common for us to experience tight muscles in our daily lives. A tight muscle is a short muscle, and a short muscle cannot provide the power that a long muscle can. So, we need to stretch out those muscles to make them long again.
The three tightest muscle groups that can affect us roadies are our hip flexors, hamstrings and calves. But it's clear that doing some specific stretches to help lengthen these muscles groups can have a profoundly positive effect on our riding.
It's also clear that the "off-season" for many of us is a time when – even if we happen to live in one of those year-round riding climates – we tend to not feel quite so compelled to ride as often, and instead don't mind actually doing some other types of workouts and exercises.
So, if you're open to adding some stretching to your workouts this winter, here are the three muscle groups you might target, along with some specific stretches from our eBook Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist. The photos of co-author Amy Schultz, and text below the photos, from the book illustrate and explain how to do each stretch.
1) Hip Flexors
When it comes to our daily sedentary lives, these are the most abused muscle group in the body.
Sitting on the bike, we are hunched over, our hips at 90°. While at work we’re sitting at our desk (sometimes for hours at a time), with our hips bent at 90°. At the dinner table our hips are bent at 90°, relaxing in a chair, our hips are bent at 90°.
It’s no wonder we all have very shortened and very weak hip flexors. So, get up from whatever you're doing and stretch your hip flexors at least once a day. The eBook covers numerous exercises to stretch the hip flexors.
Due to time constraints, however, I like doing combination stretches, i.e., performing a stretch that works more than 1 muscle (group). For Hip Flexors, my favorite is the combined HIP FLEXORS & QUADRICEPS stretch – described on page 10 of the book.
Grab a pillow to kneel on as pictured above. Start with the right foot forward. Then, for the next set, place the left foot forward. Plant the front foot firmly and feel the stretch in the hip flexors. Reach back and grab your ankle and pull up toward you to the point of transition from the stretch − stopping just short of pain. The further you pull up on the ankle, the more you will stretch the quadriceps.
As with most of these stretching exercises, don’t over-do them, i.e., don’t over-stretch, or you might feel pain in other joints, such as your knees.
Start out with a 30-second quadriceps stretch on each leg. Add more as time permits.
If hip flexors are the most abused muscle group in the body, then the hamstrings can’t be far behind.
When the knees are bent, the hamstrings are shortened. Shortened hamstrings are also caused by too many hours seated in a chair. So stretch those hamstrings to help the lower back pain go away and to be able to apply more power to the pedals.
For hamstrings, I'm recommending the basic isolated standing hamstring stretch, described on page 22 in the book. What I like about doing this exercise is the ability to go into a deep (active) stretch.
While standing, place the heel of your right foot on a pillow that is at an elevation that you can start at with no pain. As you gain more flexibility, you can place the pillow higher and higher. It is interesting to note that you can do this exercise two different ways: Static and Active.
For this exercise, it is important to keep the leg straight/knee locked and the core tight. You can vary the amount of tension on the hamstrings by bending slightly at the hip. Do not bounce on these and stop when you feel that the hamstrings are tight. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat for the other leg.
STATIC: Place foot on pillow and bend slightly at the hip until you feel the hamstrings are tight.
ACTIVE: Exactly like the STATIC stretch, but for these, you will also force your heel hard into the pillow.
The calves also never get stretched much in our daily lives. More than 50% of my cycling clients complain of calf pain, Achilles pain and severe calf cramps at night. Include calf stretches and exercises to make these pains go away.
Since there are 2 muscles that make up the calf, I prefer to stretch both at once. To stretch the entire calf, page 12 of the eBook (CALF: GASTROCNEMIUS & SOLEUS) describes how to stretch both muscles that make up the calf. Although this stretch is primarily for the calf, it indirectly stretches the hamstrings as well, so you get a 3-for-1 doing this stretch.
In cycling, the Gastrocnemius is used to point your foot to the ground (plantar flex the foot) as well as helping flex the knee joint. When pedaling, downward force is first applied to the heel and the Gastrocnemius actively pushes your toes toward the ground, which ultimately prevents the foot from collapsing backward. Due to its use in the pedal stroke, the Gastroc can become shortened, which can easily lead to decreased strength during the pedal stroke or, worse, a torn muscle.
For this stretch, start in a push-up position. Cross one foot over the other foot’s heel and stretch the Gastroc on the straight leg. Keep knee locked and try to plant the heel into the mat. Again, NO BOUNCING.
To stretch the SOLEUS, bend knee slightly and do the same as above. Remember, to ‘isolate’ the Soleus, keep the knee slightly bent.
Coach Rick Schultz is an avid cyclist who trains, races and coaches in Southern California. Rick is an engineer by trade, and in addition to being a coach, he's a bike fitter and prolific product reviewer. He's the author of Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist and Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit in the RBR eBookstore. Check his product reviews website, www.biketestreviews.com, and his coaching site, www.bikefitnesscoaching.com. Click to read Rick's full bio.