In the Tour de France on Saturday the riders raced through the Alps in the rain. Phil Liggett pointed out that late into the night the soigneurs would be massaging the riders and the mechanics would be working late into the night to get everything ready for Sunday’s mountainous stage.
An RBR reader asked about using a roller on his muscles, a form of massage. He’s asking about a particular application. The answer begins with a more general discussion of massage:
Michael Johnson writes, I am a 68-year-old cyclist, I ride regularly and have an event coming up. The event is 24 hours, we are on a tandem and last year covered 329 miles. My question is, would one of those smaller hard muscle rollers be helpful to freshen up the legs during our short breaks? I have a friend who is a dancer who swears by hers but our situation may be different. Thanks for your help.”
Coach Hughes Michael, using the roller will make a difference. I went mountain biking today for an intensity workout and rolled my legs when I got home. I’ll explain why massage helps in general and how to use the roller for the most benefit. The roller works on your legs. Your upper body gets tight and I’m giving you a few stretches to do as needed. I also have some suggestions on other important aspects of an endurance ride: avoiding bonking, riding in the heat, hydration, electrolytes and cramping
General Benefits of Massage
Muscle fibers are composed of thick filaments (myosin) and thin filaments (actin). When a muscle fiber contracts these filaments slide past each other, which how power is produced. If the muscle is tight the filaments don’t slide s smoothly and you can’t produce as much power. If your muscles are tight and painful it’s psychologically harder to keep riding. Tight muscles also increase the risk of cramping.
More generally, massage improves muscle recovery faster than passive methods. While you are riding the stress on the muscles results in deep tissue fatigue and micro-tears of the muscle fibers. To speed healing your body increases the blood flow to the muscles and releases chemical irritants. You feel these chemical irritants as pain particularly the next day, i.e., Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Massage improves the exchange of substances between the blood and tissue cells and flushes these and other metabolic byproducts out of the muscles.
New research shows that at a cellular level massage turns off the genes associated with inflammation and turns on the genes that produce new mitochondria, which is where the actual production of energy occurs inside cells. Massage’s Mystery Mechanism Unmasked in Science Magazine
You can work on these main muscle groups in your legs. If you’re pressed for time, work on the ones that feel especially tight. To prevent cramping, work on the first three, which are particularly prone to cramping:
- Quadriceps: The quadriceps are the fleshy muscles on the front of the thigh. They straighten the knee and provide power primarily through the first 90° of the stroke while cycling.
- Hamstrings: The hamstrings are on the back of the thigh opposite the quadriceps and provide power as you pull your foot through the bottom of the stroke.
- Gastrocnemius and Achilles: By flexing the knee and then flexing the ankle, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in your calf provide power from about 45° to 135°. The gastrocnemius is the large fleshy muscle on your calf that runs from just above your knee to your ankle.
- Iliotibial Band (ITB): The ITB is connective tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh from top of the hip to just below the knee and stabilizes the knee.
- Gluteals: The gluteals are the big muscles in your butt. They straighten the hip and provide power primarily through the first 90° of the stroke.
- Hip flexor: The hip flexors are a group of muscles between the front of the hip and the top of the thigh. While riding they lift one leg through the back of the stroke so that your descending leg doesn’t have to push the ascending leg up.
How to Massage
Using the hard roller work on one group of muscles at a time. Start by bending slightly the joints to which the particular muscles are connected. For example, bend your hip and knee slightly to work on the gluteals or the quadriceps. Then grab the muscle group and shake gently until your muscles start to feel loose and floppy.
You should always massage toward your heart so start at your knee and roll the roller gently the full length of your thigh to your hip. Lift the roller back down and roll toward your knee again with more pressure. Keep moving the roller down and rolling back up increasing the pressure each time. Go hard and deep enough that your skin wrinkles toward you and you can see the muscle moving.
You can also use the roller at an angle to the muscle group to stretch the muscles differently.
Which roller? I use a Tiger Tail Roller from REI illustrated in the photo.
Upper Body Stretching
Your upper body will also get stiff and a few minutes of stretching will help a lot.
Overhead: Interweave your fingers, reach overhead and push your palms toward the sky. Stretch and imagine your spine elongating. Then bend slightly to one side, hold, and then bend to the other side.
Cat: Get on your hands and knees. Start the stretch by slowly arching your back up and rolling your head forward and dropping your chin down toward chest. Then reverse the stretch starting with your pelvis, then pushing your abdomen toward floor and finally rolling your head back slowly. Repeat the stretch several times taking about 30 seconds each time to go through the full range of motion each direction.
You can stretch out your back carefully while riding on your bicycle. To stretch coast with your pedals in the 3 and 9 o’clock positions and keep looking down the road while you arch your back and then push your abdomen toward the top tube of your bicycle.
Back rotation: This is an alternative to the cat. Stand with both feet on the ground, straddling the bike. Rotate to the right, grab your seat with your right hand and your stem with your left hand. Rotate as far to the right as you can. Repeat the stretch to the left side.
Neck: Stretch your neck three different directions:
- Stand with your head rolled forward and your chin on chest. Put your hands on back of your head and allow weight of your arms to pull your head down and stretch the back of your neck.
- To stretch the left side of your neck, roll your head towards your right shoulder. Wrap your right arm over top of your head and allow the weight of your arm to pull your head to right and stretch your neck. For more of a stretch push your left palm toward the floor or ground.
- Repeat the stretch for left side.
Never stretch your neck backwards; this may strain vertebrae.
I’ve written a column on Why stretching may help cyclists.
I have a full illustrated stretching program on my website.
Icing: For icing to be effective the ice pack needs to be on the affected area for 15 – 20 minutes to get it cold enough to reduce inflammation. Focal icing is quicker and works well if you have particular sore spot, rather than a generally sore area. Freeze water in small paper cups. Rub the ice on the problem spot, peeling back the cup as the ice melts and stop when the skin starts to get numb.
My eBook Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains in detail how to give yourself a traditional massage, the different types of stretching and different ways to ice as well as six other recovery techniques. Optimal Recovery is illustrate with 14 photos.
During a timed event you want to minimize time off the bike. If you have a support crew teach one of them how to use the roller. The crew can work on your legs while you eat, put on sunscreen, etc.
Nothing New in an Event
This is a cardinal rule for a successful event! Try the roller at home to get a feel for it. Then go on a training ride, stop at the house, give your legs a quick roller massage, stretch and get back on the bike. Did this make a difference? Try the stretches – do they help? Does focal point icing do any good?
Other Performance Factors
Your legs and tightness are only one of the factors affecting performance. I’ve written columns on other areas you may find helpful:
- Heat tolerance and aging
- Cycling in the heat 101 includes how to acclimate
- Learning from the pros: heat and hydration
- How to ride safely in the summer heat
Hydration and electrolytes
- 12 myths about hydration
- What’s the best electrolyte supplement?
- What electrolytes do you really need?
- Anti-Aging muscle cramps
- Cramping: A Case Study – The Perfect Storm, Part 1
- Cramping: A Case Study – The Perfect Storm, Part 2
Nutrition for 100K and Beyond. If you don’t fuel properly you won’t get very far either in training or in rides. I combine scientific research and 40 years of experience to teach you what to eat before, during and after rides. The 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is $4.99.
Eating and Drinking like the Pros explains in detail what they eat before, during and after a race. I give you a dozen recipes to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food, which are just as effective as the more expensive commercial products. And mine taste better! I evaluate a dozen choices when you’re at the minimart to resupply. The 15-page Eating and Drinking like the Pros is $4.99.
Cycling in the Heat Bundle You can learn more about the science of riding in the heat, and managing your fluids and electrolytes, in my two-part eArticle series:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management is 19 pages and covers how to acclimatize to hot conditions, how to train in hot months, what to wear, eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat, and how to deal with heat-related problems.
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: Hydration Management is 21 pages and covers how to determine how much you should drink depending on your physiology and sweat rate, how best to replace your fluids and electrolytes, the contents of different sports drinks, how to make your own electrolyte replacement drinks, how to rehydrate after a ride, and how to deal with hydration-related problems.
The cost-saving bundled eArticles totaling 40 pages Cycling in the Heat Parts 1 and 2 are just $8.98 (a 10% savings)
Preventing and Treating Cramps goes into much more detail about what we know about the major causes, possible contributing factors and how to prevent cramps. I include photos of how to break and flush a cramp.
Summer Riding Bundle includes four of the above eArticles to give you the info you need to ride better and more comfortably. It includes:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management. 20 pages on how to acclimate, how to ride in the heat without overheating, how to stay (relatively) cool, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat and heat related problems
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: Hydration Management. 21 pages on assessing your personal sweat rate and composition, how much you should drink, electrolyte replacement and the pros and cons of electrolyte replacement drinks, supplements and foods.
- Preventing and Treating Cramps. I haven’t cramped in decades. 10 pages on what causes cramps, how to prevent them and what to do to break a cramp so you can keep riding.
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food and Drink — Nutritional Insight from Pro Teams. 15 pages covering what the pros eat and drink, what you can learn from this, how to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food and what to eat at a minimart.
My timely Summer Riding Bundle is $15.96, a 15% discount. Purchasing just three of these eArticles separately would cost you $14.97!
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Richard Rogers says
Very good information. I wonder how a cyclist can stretch while riding on the bicycle.
Richard Radcliffe says
Any thoughts on massage guns?