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How to Stretch After Cycling to Avoid Tight Muscles

Reading Time: 6 minutes 4 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2020-12-18T00:00:00-05:00


Cycling offers many benefits. It can improve cardiovascular fitness, increase muscle strength, and aid in joint mobility. Research also reveals that regular cycling helps boost longevity, especially in the middle-aged and the elderly. One drawback of this particular sport is that it can lead to tight muscles.

Cycling and Muscle Tightness

The muscle group used most when cycling is the legs. The quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles must all work together to power each pedal stroke.

If you're unfamiliar, pedal stroke refers to the act of moving the bicycle pedal in a circular motion. When engaging in longer bike rides, muscles in the leg can tense up due to repetitive pedal strokes. This results in discomfort and pain.

The gluteus maximus—the largest of the gluteal muscles—also helps power pedal stroke. One of the strongest muscles in the body, the gluteus maximus is located on the outside of the hip joint. If it is used for long periods of time or is exerted to make it up a steep hill, it can tighten as well.

Some cyclists experience tightness in the hip flexor after riding. The hip flexor helps pull the leg back up during the latter portion of the pedal stroke. Transition into longer rides too quickly and you may notice tight hip flexors.

Your body position as you ride can also cause tightness in the hip flexor muscles. They may become compressed after spending time in a forward leaning position.

Learn more about the science behind body structure, conditioning, cycling technique, and good form with ISSA's Indoor Cycling Instructor Certification. Use the knowledge to improve your own cycling or take to the next level and become an indoor cycling instructor

How Stretching Helps After Cycling

Studies show that stretching helps increase hip range of motion. It aids in both hip flexion and extension. This is beneficial to cyclists since both movements are required to propel the bike forward. The easier it is to move your hips, the easier it is to pedal the bike.

One piece of research also found that stretching enhances flexibility in the quadriceps. Flexible upper leg muscles are less likely to tighten. They're better able to stand up to the repetitive cycling motions.

This same study noted that three weeks of stretching helps improve knee function. For clients struggling with knee pain, stretching may ease the discomfort by helping the knee joint perform in a healthier way.

Can stretching reduce your injury risk? The answer to this question is somewhat up in the air. A review of the literature notes that there is not enough evidence to say that stretching absolutely aids in injury prevention. Yet, a 2003 study found that stretching can potentially reduce muscle injury, though it may not help with injury to the bones or joints.

Static Stretching vs Dynamic Stretching for Muscle Tightness

There are two basic types of stretching. They are static stretching and dynamic stretching. What's the difference?

A static stretch involves holding a stretch without movement. If you pull your right knee up to your body and hold it for 10-20 seconds, this is a static stretch. Bending your upper body forward until your hands touch the ground and holding it is also a static stretch.

A dynamic stretch is a stretch that is more active. Unlike a static stretch, it does not end with holding a particular pose. There is movement throughout the entire stretch. An example of a dynamic stretch would be to bring your knee up to your chest but then immediately release it.

Which type of stretch is best for cycling-related muscle tightness?

One piece of research indicates that both types of stretching are good for improving range of motion. However, whether static or dynamic stretching is best changes from person to person. One client may do well with static stretching. Another client may see more results with dynamic stretching.

Keeping this in mind helps you create a stretching routine that is most beneficial to that individual client. If they aren't noticing any benefit from one type of stretching, try the other. It's possible that they may see better results with a different form of stretch.

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Top Cycling Stretches to Ease Tight Muscles

There are a few different stretches that can help cyclists reduce muscle tension after a long or strenuous ride. They include:

  • Standing quad stretch. If you tend to get tight quadriceps, while standing, lift your right foot behind you and grab your ankle with your right hand. Lightly pull your foot toward your glutes until you feel tension in your quadriceps. Repeat on the left side to avoid muscle imbalance.

  • Standing calf stretch. To stretch your calf muscle, stand a foot or two from a wall. Place your right leg in front of you and your left leg behind you. Lean your upper body forward until you touch the wall, bending your right knee at the same time. Keep leaning until you feel it in your calf muscle. Repeat on the other side.

  • Seated glute stretch. Sit on a chair or bench and lift your right foot, placing it over the left knee. Bend forward at the hip until you feel a stretch in the glute muscles. Repeat on the other side.

  • Hip flexor stretch. Kneel with right knee on the ground. Twist your torso to right, placing your left forearm on your right thigh. Use your forearm to help stretch your core to the right. Repeat on the other side. This stretch will help ease tightness in your hip flexors.

  • Lying hamstring stretch. A lying straight leg stretch is good at easing tension in the hamstring. To do it, lie on your back and raise your right leg as far as you can, holding it as straight as you can. Repeat with the left leg. (For a better stretch, ask someone to hold your foot and press slightly forward. This helps you stretch a bit further than you can on your own.)

Research indicates that the greatest improvements in range of motion occur when a stretch is held for 15 to 30 seconds. Older clients may see greater results with 60-second holds.

If the goal is increased flexibility, holding the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds is sufficient. Additionally, performing each stretch 2-4 times is adequate for elongating the muscle. Any more than that and there is no real benefit.

Complement Your Stretches with a Foam Roller

Adding a foam roller to your stretching routine can also help ease tension in the leg, glute, and hip flexor muscles. It works by placing pressure on the tight muscle. By rolling forward and back, this pressure gets the muscle to release and relax.

To ease tightness in your quadriceps, lie on your front with the foam roller under your upper thigh. Use your arms to gently move your body forward and backward over the roller.

If it is your glutes that are tight, sit on the foam roller while gently rocking your body over the roller. Release your hamstrings by moving the roller slightly lower so it sits under your upper leg.

What About Stretching Before You Ride?

Stretching pre-ride may help you increase your muscle power. However, it is somewhat unclear as to whether static or dynamic stretches have the same effect.

Some pieces of research suggest that warming up with static stretches provides more power to the leg muscles. Others have found that dynamic stretching is better when it comes to increasing power output. With this in mind, it's best to pay attention to your own body and which type of stretching it responds to best.

It should be noted that some pieces of research warn that static stretching before cycling can negatively impact performance. For instance, a 2011 study of 10 highly trained endurance cyclists found that this type of stretching increases oxygen consumption during the ride. For this reason, it may be best to stretch only before shorter rides.

When Stretching Doesn't Provide Relief

If your client experiences abnormal tightness or soreness after cycling and stretching doesn't help, taking a few days off may be necessary. It's possible that the muscles were overworked. Giving them time to recover will help ease the discomfort or pain.

If that doesn't work, they may need to see a doctor or physical therapist. They may have pulled a muscle or suffered some other type of injury while engaged in their cycling regimen. In this case, additional treatment may be needed.

Working with clients post-injury requires specific knowledge and skill. If you'd enjoy helping this type of client, the ISSA offers Exercise Therapy Certification. This course teaches you all about therapeutic exercise. You will learn how to work with clients who have specific health conditions. You'll also gain the skills to develop exercise programs that will benefit them most. Injury doesn't have to mean that they can't exercise. With this certification, you'll show them how they can.

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