January 30, 2012 cburnham

Cycling and Sucky Flexibilty

Stretching sucks.  There I said it.  There isn’t a Strava KOM for stretching the longest, it hurts, and it is kind of boring.  But here is the thing, having better range of motion can make you faster and safer on and off the bike; and feel a lot better afterwards.

You have to know how to take care of your body if your riding 20+ hours a week.

There are a few ways that having an increased functional range of motion can improve your cycling.  The first is through a better position on the bike.  A good bike fit takes in to account more than just your body measurements and should include some assessment of your functional ability.  Functional ability is a combination of core strength and hip function.  Basically, the better your core strength and hip range of motion the lower your torso can be on the bike without adopting a broken posture.  What is a broken posture?

Lots of flexion in the lower back

A broken posture is having an excessive localized bend in the back. It is somewhat acceptable to have a slight bend in your upper thoracic back, but the lower back should be rock solid to provide a good support for hard pedaling and preventing lower back pain.  If you have excessive tightness in the hamstrings it isn’t going to allow you to roll your hips forward to flatten your back.  Instead your hips will stay relatively upright and it will force your back to flex at some point to allow you to reach the handlebars.  In a lot of cyclists this happens at the lower back resulting in either lower power output, or pain in the lower back.  Neither will make you very fast.

The other issue with a decreased range of motion is a physiological phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition.  Basically, as tension in one muscle is increasing from either a muscle contraction or as it reaches the end range of motion, the antagonist muscle decreases its force production.  In the example of the hamstrings, as you approach your end range of motion in the hamstrings your body protects itself against muscle damage by decreasing the force production in the opposing muscle group, the quads.  That doesn’t sound like it is going to result in you going faster on the bike.

Hip Flexors

Beyond the hamstrings, the other most common shortened muscles in the body are the hip flexors.  In

Broken posture while sitting at a desk.

today’s modern society we spend so much time sitting at work, in the car, watching TV, and for cyclists on the bike, that we end up with chronically shortened hip flexors.  Typically one side will end up being tighter than the other which results in the pelvis being rotated on the bike.  A rotated pelvis can lead to a slew of issues including lower back pain (usually more on one side than the other), knee pain, hip pain, and only being able to ride in circles (OK, maybe not).  The antagonist of the hip flexors are the glutes, one of the strongest muscles in the body and the main muscle responsible for extending the hip (i.e. pushing down on the pedals). Just as with the hamstrings, that reciprocal inhibition will shut those bad boys down as you get close to that end range of motion which ultimately results in you going slower.Everyone is different and it is important to search out your flexibility limitations and start to work on the gristly bits. A good bike fit can help you determine what is going on and where your overall functionality lies.

So once you have determined what is tight and needs to be worked on, how do you do it?  The first thing I recommend is to get on a foam roller.  The sheering force of the roller improves the ability of the muscles to slide over each other and reduces tension within the muscle.  Without the adhesions in the layers of muscle and connective tissue you can then go to work on stretching the tissues with either static stretching or PNF stretching (propriecptive neuromuscular facilitation).  PNF stretching is a combination of static stretching and isometric contractions that allows the body to avoid the myostatic stretch reflex which will contract a muscle when it is being lengthened. Basically, you start by doing a traditional stretch then you contract the muscle being stretched for around 5 – 6 seconds before relaxing and going deeper into the stretch.  I have found the PNF stretching to be much more effective with the hamstrings, and traditional static stretching to more effect for the hip flexors.  With all stretching you should feel tension on the tissue being stretched but not intense pain.  If you ever feel intense pain or numbness while stretching, STOP!

Here is how I how I would recommend stretching the hamstrings:

  • Warm-up the muscles with some light activity (spinning, body weight squats, light running).
  • Lie on your back and use a rolled up towel under your foot to raise your leg up (you can also have an awesome friend help and lift your leg up as well)
  • Gently pull the towel up till you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstrings.  Stay there for about 10 seconds.
  • Then contract your hamstrings for about 5 – 10 seconds, trying to bring your foot back to the floor while holding the towel to prevent it from moving.
  • Then relax the leg and use the towel to pull it back to the point where you feel the gentle stretch again.
  • Repeat 5+ times until you your gaining more range of motion.
  • Repeat on the other side.
Here is the hip flexor stretch I recommend:
  • Grab that foam roller I know you have (if you don’t, stop reading now and go get one!) and lie across it so that your sacrum, or upper hips, is contacting the roller.
  • Using both arms, pull your left knee to your chest as far as you can.
  • At the same time extend the right leg, locking the knee and the pushing the right heel forward.  That leg should just be hanging.  Hold for 60 – 90 seconds letting the weight of the leg do the stretching.
  • At the end of the stretch DO NOT suddenly let go.  Slowly release your left leg and lower it till your right heel touches the ground.
  • Repeat on the other side.
Get at it!  

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