Integrating a stretching routine into your cycling training plan has real benefits, despite being a contentious topic in the world of sports science.
Why Should Cyclists Stretch?
Let’s be frank, the sport of cycling isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to the tension that results from numerous hours of training, riding, and racing. Restore normalcy to your body posture and break any unhealthy tendencies caused from your bike position by making stretching a normal practice within your typical training schedule.
If your goal is to feel more comfortable in and out of the saddle, while also maintaining a pain-free position to optimize both power and aerodynamics, there are a handful of stretches all cyclists should introduce into their daily lives.
What Benefits Can Stretching Afford Cyclists?
- First and foremost, to restore the body’s natural posture by bringing normalcy back to adaptively shortened muscles caused by maintaining typical riding positions.
- Secondly, to remove limitations that affect a rider’s ability to move, pain-free, through each joint’s full range of motion.
- Thirdly, to provide a framework for addressing other non-fitness aspects of cycling, ones that carry beyond being a faster rider (e.g. being comfortable in day-to-day life).
What Stretches are Best for Cyclists?
We’re looking to properly align the spine and loosen both the pelvic and shoulder girdles — the parts of the body subject to becoming overly tightened — to achieve each of these mentioned benefits. This specific stretching routine utilizes two different stretching techniques.
The first technique is known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Our stretching routine concludes with two stretches using the technique of oscillation.
- PNF is a stretching technique proven useful for increasing muscle elasticity and results in improved range of motion both actively and passively.1
- Oscillation in the context of stretching refers to the technique of back and forth motions, in and out of a flex position. These are typically referred to as dynamic stretches.
Can Stretching Increase Performance?
We’re not going to try and convince the cycling community that stretching before your next 40k time trial will get you your long sought-after sub-50. That’s not the case we’re trying to make. We will say that stretching is understood better than ever before1, and research supports increased range of motion as a result of integrating PNF and oscillation stretching techniques into a training routine.
- Does stretching mean better performance? Maybe not directly.
- Does stretching increase an athlete’s range of motion? Yes.
- Does increased range of motion allow potential for an enhanced training benefit? If more muscle can be stimulated due to increases in range of motion, yes.
- Does tension on the bike from overly tightened muscles mount and increase perceived effort? Yes.
- Can stretching decrease that tension in those overly stimulated muscles? Yes.
If we can gain enhanced training benefit from increases in range of motion, and if we can reduce perceived effort from mounting muscular tension, we’d argue stretching will result in increases in performance.
Stretch 1: Neck Flexion Stretch (PNF)
Addressing the neck muscles that are constantly in an overextended position on the bike, the neck flexion stretch aims to release that tension by pulling the head into a flexed position. In this stretch, we target the cervical area of the spine in two ways.
- First, we place a hand on top of our heads. Then, while keeping both shoulders pulled back, we’ll slowly pull the chin to the chest.
- Second, we’ll place a hand on our heads once more. Without letting our shoulders dip to either side, pull the head in the direction of the arm you’re using to facilitate the stretch.
Stretch 2: Global Thoracic Extension (Oscillation)
Whether at our desks or draped over a bicycle, the body tends to fold inward into an overly flexed position. To unlock the tension that arises because of it, we’ll target the thoracic section of the spine; the area between the neck and lower back.
By extending the body over any number of surfaces, preferably something rounded, the spinal segments of the mid-back are opened up. In this oscillation stretch we’ll repeat moving in & out of flex position by slowly letting our heads drop down and slowly lifting ourselves back up.
Optionally, we can get even more out of this stretch by reaching our arms over head and bracing them on a weighted object, preferably a barbell or kettlebell. This further opens up the spine and frees stress in the anterior chain (chest and abdomen) as well as the thoracic segments of the spine. Instead of oscillating the upper body in the variant of this stretch, you’ll drop your hips and glutes to the ground in this instance.
Stretch 3: Lumbar Mobility Repeats (Oscillation)
Similar to the mid-section of the spine, the lower back tends to become overly flexed from our on-, and off-the-bike routines. To combat the tension that arises in the vertebrae in the lumbar area of the spine, we’ll simply overextend our lower back.
When we overextend in this position, we’ll want to arch our spine, poof our chest out, and pull the shoulders down. We will also oscillate in and out of the position for this stretch by moving from a slightly hunched posture to the extended position we’ve just outlined. This stretch can be done sitting, even on the bike, but preferably done while standing.
Stretch 4: Bilateral Internal Rotation Stretch (PNF)
Whether it’s handlebars, our steering wheel, or from typing at a computer all day, the upper limbs become internally rotated. To counter the symptoms caused from internally rotated shoulders, this stretch targets tightness in the chest and the laxity in the upper back.
We’ll want to lay flat on a surface with our knees up and feet flat on the floor. We’ll slightly lift the mid- and lower-sections of the back and inner-lace our fingers underneath our back. While keeping our shoulders flat on the ground, we’ll slowly drop our back, back down. Feel free to move the position of the hands along the back to find where this stretch is most effective for you.
This stretch is best done with a friend. When dropping the spine down to the ground with our hands interlocked along the back, a friend will push your shoulders down to ensure they are completely flat on the ground.
Stretch 5: Couch Stretch (PNF)
Addressing both the hip flexors and the quadriceps, two areas chronically tight in cyclists, the couch stretch is a static stretch we’ll hold in a knee-flexed/hip-extended position.
We’ll want to place our feet up against a wall, or shin up against a couch, with our knee making contact with the ground/couch. To maintain balance, our other leg is at a 90 degree angle; then we’ll slowly straighten our backs to make as vertical a line as possible from our heads down through the knee of the leg we’re stretching.
Note card: If you want to increase the severity of this stretch, contract the gluteal (butt) muscle of the stretched leg to further the stretch on the quads and hip flexors.
Stretching Duration and Frequency
Static stretches (PNF) need to be held for at least 30 seconds. 2-3 minutes would be even better. The oscillating stretches follow the same recommendation, but with continuous movement.
Your stretching routine should be a daily commitment in order to take full advantage of these potential benefits.
We’re not going to sit here and claim stretching will immediately lead to better performance. There is evidence that reveals this isn’t the case for a variety of sports. What we will say is we believe restoring the body’s natural posture is beneficial for reasons beyond performance. We will also say that increases in range of motion as a result of stretching can lead to enhanced training benefit that may translate to better performances down the road.
- Hindle, Kayla B. et al. “Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function.” Journal of Human Kinetics 31 (2012): 105–113. PMC. Web. 1 Feb. 2018.
- Funk DC, Swank AM, Mikla BM, Fagen TA, Farr BK. “Impact of Prior Exercise on Hamstring Flexibility: A Comparison of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and Static Stretching.” Natl Str Cond Assoc J. 2003;17(3):489–492.
- Dimitris, Chatzopoulos et al. “Acute Effects of Static and Dynamic Stretching on Balance, Agility, Reaction Time and Movement Time”J Sports Sci Med. May. 2014;13(2): 403-409
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