Stretching regularly will relieve tightness, increase your comfort on the bike and improve your recovery. The following program takes about 10 minutes per session. You’ll get results with just three sessions a week.
Your muscles have a natural range of motion (ROM) that is a result of your genetics. The ROM differs among individuals. You can’t increase your natural ROM range; however, use it or lose it applies to flexibility just like other aspects of fitness. If you don’t regularly move your different muscle groups through their full ROMs, those muscle groups will shorten and you’ll be less flexible. Unless you work to maintain it, the loss of flexibility increases as you age.
Stretching regularly is also important for cycling. When you pedal, your legs aren’t extending fully or bending fully. Your upper body isn’t moving much. As a result your muscles tighten and then start to hurt.
Sit and Reach Test
How flexible are you? Perform this test in the afternoon or evening (not in the morning when you’re still stiff). Wear shoes with flat soles. Sit on the floor with your legs extended on the floor and your ankles together. Place a ruler flat on the floor between your heels, with the 6-inch marker aligned with your heels. Point your toes straight toward the ceiling. Bend forward at the waist and stretch your arms and hands toward your toes. Have a friend measure how close to your toes (or past them) you can reach. Repeat three times and enter the results for future reference.
Distance from (past) toes”
- Trial #1 _________?
- Trial #2 _________?
- Trial #3 _________?
If you can’t reach your toes you definitely need to stretch more!
How to Stretch:
The body is a kinetic chain, i.e., the muscle groups are connected to each other. You need to stretch each part of your body as described below. For example, stretching your glutes will also increase the range of motion (ROM) of your hamstrings. Stretching your hip flexors will also increase the ROM of your quads.
The body has two different sensors that monitor and affect how you stretch:
- The stretch reflex is to maintain muscle tone and balance and also to avoid over-stretching and tearing muscle fibers. The stretch reflex is controlled by the stretch receptors in the muscle spindle fibers and is triggered when too much force or too rapid a force is applied to a muscle.
- The Golgi Tendon Organs, located where tendons attach to muscles, monitor the load on the tendons. If the load becomes too great, they cause the muscle to relax.
If done properly, taking into account these mechanisms, stretching will loosen the muscles and increase flexibility at the joints. However, if you don’t stretch correctly, the stretch reflex will kick in and your muscles will tighten! By following these guidelines, you’ll get the most benefit from stretching:
- Warm up for a few minutes before stretching – walking around is sufficient. Muscles stretch better when they are warm.
- Inhale and exhale slowly while doing a stretch.
- With each exhalation try to stretch a little farther, but don’t stretch to the point of discomfort.
- Don’t bounce, which will cause the muscles to tighten.
- If you have time you repeat a stretch several times.
The Nine Key Stretches
These stretches target the key muscles that tighten while cycling. The first three are muscle groups prone to cramping while riding. Stretching the muscles will lengthen them to your full ROM and reduce the probability of cramps on the bicycle.
1. Quadriceps: The quadriceps are the fleshy muscles on the front of your thigh. They straighten the knee and provide power primarily through the first 90° of the stroke while cycling. To stretch the quadriceps in your right leg, lie on your left side with your left leg slightly bent. Bend your right leg until you can hold your right ankle with your right hand. Keep your pelvis forward and gently pull back until you feel your right quads stretch. Repeat to stretch the other leg.
You can also do this standing while holding onto your saddle for balance.
2. Hamstrings: The hamstring muscles are in the back of your thighs. They provide power as you pull your foot through the bottom of the stroke on the bicycle. To stretch your hamstrings, lie on your back and bend your right knee so that your foot is flat on the floor. Hook a towel or strap over your left foot. Lift your left leg up toward the ceiling, keeping the knee joint straight, until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. If you are more flexible you can do the stretch with your right leg straight on the floor rather than the knee bent. Then stretch the other leg.
You can also stretch your hamstring by putting one foot on something like picnic table bench at a rest stop or a low wall. The more flexible you are the higher the foot support you can use. Tighten your core and slowly bend forward without rounding your back too much so that you’re stretching your hamstrings. Do not stretch by simply bending forward with a rounded back to touch your toes! The weight of your unsupported torso may injure your back.To stretch by touching your toes, engage your core so your back is slightly hyperextended, i.e., stomach down and shoulders and butt up a little. You can read about how to engage your core here.
3. Gastrocnemius and Achilles: The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in your calf provide power from about 45° to 135° while cycling. The gastrocnemius is the large fleshy muscle that runs from behind your knee to your ankle. To stretch it stand with your left leg straight and your left foot several feet away from a wall. Your right foot is about a foot from the wall. Slowly lean toward the wall to stretch the left gastrocnemius and Achilles. Repeat to stretch the right leg.
4. Soleus: The soleus is the powerful muscle beneath the gastrocnemius in the back of your calf. It points your toe down at the bottom of the stroke. To stretch the soleus in your left calf, stand with your left leg bent about 20 degrees at the knee and your left foot several feet from a wall. Your right foot should be under your body closer to the wall. Slowly lean toward the wall to stretch the soleus muscle in your left calf. Repeat the stretch with your right leg.
5. 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 on the bicycle. To stretch the glutes lie on your back with your right leg bent and foot flat on the floor. Cross your left ankle over your right knee. Curl up, wrap your hands around right your thigh and then lie back down. You’ll feel the stretch in your left gluteal. Repeat to stretch the right glute.
6. Hip flexor: The hip flexors are a group of muscles between the front of the hip and the thigh. On the bicycle they lift one leg through the back of the stroke so that your other leg doesn’t have to push the ascending leg up. To stretch your left hip flexors, lie on your stomach with your left knee bent about 90 degrees with a strap or towel hooked over your left foot. Pull on the strap lifting your left thigh slightly off the floor and you should feel a nice stretch in the left hip flexor/quadriceps. Repeat the stretch with other leg.
You can also stretch your left hip flexor by kneeling with your left knee and right foot on the floor. Tighten your core. Push your pelvis forward so that you straighten your left knee and at the same time lean backwards.
7. Iliotibial Band (IT Band): The IT band is a sheath of connective tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh from the top of the hip bone to just below the knee. If it gets tight, while cycling you’ll feel a pain on the outside middle of the knee, starting with a mild pain and becoming sharper. To stretch the IT band, stand with the afflicted leg (in this case the right knee) near a wall and put your hand out to stabilize yourself. Cross the other (left) leg in front of the right leg you are stretching. Place the left foot to the wall. Push the right hip with the afflicted knee toward the wall until you feel a stretch along the outside of your right hip and quad.
8. Cat: Our backs often get tight after hours of bicycle riding. To stretch and relax, 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. This is an excellent on-the-bike stretch after you crest a hill.
9. Back rotation: To stretch out your back after a bicycle ride, sit with your right leg extended on floor. Place your left hand on floor behind you for balance. Bend your left leg and place your left foot on right side of your right knee. Then cross your right arm over in front of your left knee, and rotate your trunk to the left. Repeat the stretch to right side.
You can also do this with your bicycle: 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. Repeat the stretch to the left side.
Other Beneficial Stretches
The following other beneficial stretches are illustrated on my website at:
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on how to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
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.