Cycling Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Cycling stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with cycling injuries for good.
by Brad Walker | First Published July 11, 2008 | Updated July 7, 2017
Cycling came on the scene in the early 19th century. It gained momentum after Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Scottish blacksmith, invented a pedal and crank system in 1839. The first cycling road race took place in Paris in 1868. Gears and chain were invented around 1890.
Bicycle racing has been a part of the Olympics since 1896 in Athens. Over the years, the bikes have become lighter, faster and better geared for performance.
The Tour de France, started in 1903, is amongst the most famous road races. The sport gained more international acclaim with the start of the International Cycling Association (ICA) started by Henry Sturmey of England in 1893. The same year, ICA held its first world championship in Chicago. Even today, there are many cycle races with sought after titles.
Road cycling is generally longer than track races. The equipment for mountain or trail racing is very different from that for road races. The road cycle is, however, designed for more speed, tighter turning and more balance.
Bicycle road races require a great deal of muscular and cardiovascular endurance. Cross training is important for cyclists because it can be difficult get enough mileage on the bikes needed to develop the advanced endurance needed for racing. A good combination of speed, strength, and endurance work, along with flexibility training, is essential for cycling success.
The major muscles involved in road cycling include:
- The muscles of the legs and hips; the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus muscles, and the lower leg, anterior tibialis, gastrocnemius and soleus.
- The core muscles are important for maintaining balance and power; the rectus abdominis, obliques (internal and external), hip flexors, and the spinal erectors.
- The muscles of the arms and shoulders are important to maintain a support position on the bike when leaning forward; the deltoids, biceps and triceps, and the muscles of the hand, wrist and forearm.
A good strengthening and conditioning program for these muscles will help ensure success on the bike. Weaknesses, or imbalances, in any of these muscles can lead to injuries for the cyclist. Special attention must be paid to stretching the muscles after use to ensure flexibility in commonly over-used muscles.
Most Common Cycling Injuries
Road cyclists are susceptible to many overuse injuries. They are also, due to the high rates of speed, at risk of traumatic injury. This combination means that cyclists must take precaution to avoid incorrect form and excessive wear on joints and bones.
The list of common overuse injuries experienced by cyclists includes Plantar Fasciitis, Knee Bursitis, Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITB), Patellar Tendonitis, Lower Back Pain, and Muscle Strains. Cyclists who experience crashes may also be subject to fractures and traumatic brain injury.
- Plantar Fasciitis: The plantar fascia is a strong ligamentous band that runs along the bottom of the foot, from the heel to the ball of the foot. This band supports the arch of the foot and is under strain when the foot is bearing weight. When the foot supinates, such as when pedaling a bike, this places additional stress on this fascia. Plantar fasciitis is a condition that occurs when the fascia becomes inflamed and painful. Rest is the best medicine for plantar fasciitis. NSAIDs and ice massage can help, as well.
- Knee Bursitis: Bursitis is a condition where the bursa, a fluid filled sac that cushions the tendons and ligaments where they cross the bone, become irritated and inflamed. This leads to redness, warmth, and swelling in the area. In some cases the bursa may rupture causing the fluid to leak out and impair the ability of the bursa to cushion. Repetitive flexion and extension of the knee can cause irritation to the bursa on the outside of the knee or on the top of the knee cap. The pain will subside with rest and the inflammation usually responds to ice and NSAIDs during rest. Flexibility training during rehabilitation helps to reduce the chance of bursitis recurring.
- Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITB): The iliotibial band is actually a thick tendon-like portion of another muscle called the tensor fasciae latae. This band passes down the outside of the thigh and inserts just below the knee. The main problem occurs when the tensor fasciae latae muscle and iliotibial band become tight. This causes the tendon to pull the knee joint out of alignment and rub against the outside of the knee, which results in inflammation and pain. Flexibility of the hips and quadriceps are important in preventing ITB syndrome.
- Patellar Tendinitis: Patellar tendinitis may be an acute injury, caused by trauma to the tendon. More commonly it is due to overuse, or incorrect pedaling form. The tendon rubs over the bone and causes inflammation that aggravates the condition, leading to a cycle of inflammation and pain. A lot of mileage during training can lead to this condition. Treatment for tendonitis includes discontinuation of the activity that caused the problem, NSAIDs, and ice.
- Lower Back Pain: The riding position on the bike, especially during road racing, can cause pain in the lower back due to poor posture or fatigue. The muscles in the lower back can become fatigued during a long session of cycling and extended time in the same position may lead to the muscles becoming tight. This pain usually subsides with rest and stretching. Pressure on the intervertebral discs may require medical help to relieve.
- Muscle Strains: Muscle strains are sometimes caused by overstretching or working against an extreme load. They may also be caused by overtraining a muscle and not allowing for rest and recovery. The muscle fibers tear causing inflammation and bruising within the muscle. The resulting pain may lead to a guarding of the muscle and stiffness will set in due to scarring. Muscle strains range from severe, large numbers of fibers and a large area of the muscle, to minor, involving a small number of fibers. Rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medication are used to treat muscle strains. (For more treatment information, visit R.I.C.E.R.)
- Fractures: A fracture is break in a bone. It can be a partial or complete break and may be inline or compound. When an extreme force is applied to a bone, either across the bone, rotational force, or compressive force, then the bone may break. The larger the bone, the greater the force required to fracture it. The higher rates of speed of cyclists today has also lead to more severe fractures, and fractures to the larger humerus and femur. Fractures require immediate medical attention and must be immobilized to prevent further injury. Fractures usually require at least four to six weeks for recovery, with compound and large bone fractures requiring more time.
- Traumatic Brain Injury: Bike accidents can easily lead to a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Acute damage to the brain tissue can range from a mild concussion to complete separation of the spinal cord from the base of the brain stem. Landing on their head or being struck by another cyclist after they have fallen leads to many of the traumatic brain injuries in cycling. When the head hits the ground or is struck the brain moves within the skull causing bruising or more severe injury. Traumatic brain injury is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
Injury Prevention Strategies
Proper conditioning and safety measures are essential in injury prevention strategies of road cyclists.
- Always warm-up properly prior to training and especially competition.
- Allow an adequate cool-down period and perform after training/competition stretching.
- Proper cardiovascular conditioning will prevent fatigue and other overuse injuries.
- Stronger muscles will be able to handle the stress of longer rides better than weaker ones.
- Increasing flexibility in the muscles and joints will reduce the stress on these areas during training.
- Learning proper cycling technique is important to prevent overuse injuries and those caused by improper form.
- Wearing a helmet while riding is extremely important to prevent head injuries.
- Keeping the bike in top riding condition and maintaining it on a regular schedule will also prevent accidents from occurring.
The Top 3 Cycling Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective.
Stretching is essential to overall conditioning and should be an integral part of any cycling training program. Due to the long period of time spent in the same position, stretching is very important to the cyclist. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for cycling; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions below each stretch.
Kneeling Upper Hip & Quad Stretch: Kneel on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance and then push your hips forward.
Single Heel-drop Achilles Stretch: Stand on a raised object or step and place the ball of one foot on the edge of the step. Bend your knee slightly and let your heel drop towards the ground.
Lying Knee Roll-over Stretch: While lying on your back, bend your knees and let them fall to one side. Keep your arms out to the side and let your back and hips rotate with your knees.
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About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.