The Top 8 PT Stretches Every Cyclist Should Know
My friend and teammate, Tyler Arnett, is a fantastic and competitive cyclist. Currently racing as a Cat 2 cyclist he really knows his way around competitive cycling. He is also a fantastic physical therapist. I once asked him his thoughts on some of the best stretches cyclists should know in order to prevent pain and increase performance. He just recently wrote this up for me to share with all of you. Thank you Tyler!
My experience as a Cyclist & a Physical Therapist
By Tyler Arnett PT, DPT
I’ve considered myself an endurance athlete since the 7th grade when I went out for the cross-country team. I was always someone with average talent who decided I could beat people if I out-worked them. I spent the next 9 years through high school and college running at a (somewhat) competitive level in cross-country and track & field. I competed at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT – a Division I school. I was a walk-on athlete who earned a scholarship my sophomore year based on my freshman results. My mentality was always to train when others were sleeping; do the extra mile (or 5); do the extra interval; or push myself when I was hurt.
Did you read that last sentence? That was my former/dumber self. There’s a small but significant difference between “Pushing when it hurts” and “Pushing when I’m hurt”. If you don’t push yourself when it hurts, then you’re not really competing. You might be exercising, but you’re certainly not competing. I want you to think back to your last really tough event. How were those last 5 miles of that century ride? How did the last 5 minutes of that 40k time-trial feel? Were you in the pain cave? I hope so! That’s what I consider “healthy pain”. This is where we grow as an athlete and a person. This is vastly different than pathological pain, though as athletes, we often confuse the two. We often rationalize working through pain when we shouldn’t. It has taken me years (decades?) to figure out that I was doing myself more harm than good when I continued to run through pain and injury.
So what type of pain should you be concerned with? As a rule of thumb, muscle soreness after a hard workout or race that dissipates in 48-72 hours is normal. Muscular pain that lasts longer than that is a sign that something isn’t normal. If the little voice in your head says, “This doesn’t feel like normal pain”, then it probably isn’t. There are way too many overuse injuries to discuss here, but as a general rule, if I’m having muscular pain that lasts longer than 72 hours, I take a week off the bike. I’ve found that at least 90% of injuries can be avoided if we properly rest and give our body a chance to heal things before they become a chronic issue. Many of us (my former self included) tell ourselves, “If it still hurts in a month, I’ll take some time off”. By this point, it’s too late. The damage is done and your recovery is going to take at least 3-4 times as long to improve.
Another pain to be concerned with is pain located at or near a joint. Cycling is a low impact sport and should not cause joint pain. Tendonitis is a common injury for cyclists and is often found at the knee or ankle. This is not a type of pain I would recommend “pushing through”. Rather, take up to a week off the bike and focus on some of the treatments found below.
Can I prevent pain?
Short answer – No. I’ve never met any serious endurance athlete that has never experienced some sort of injury. That being said, there are way to minimize the risk of injury.
- Professional bike fit: A bike fit makes sure your joints and muscles are properly positioned so they can maximize power to the pedals while improving efficiency in your pedal stroke. A seat too high or too low can cause knee pain. Handlebars being too far or close to your saddle is sure to cause back or neck pain. Even small adjustments in cleat position can have a huge effect on foot or knee pain. Do yourself a favor and get a professional bike fit. Otherwise, you’ll need to spend a LOT more time doing the following Physical Therapy interventions.
- Foam rolling: It would be great if we all have unlimited wealth and access to a massage therapist, but that’s unrealistic for most of us. Foam rolling is a great alternative that is inexpensive, simple, and you can do it anywhere. Spent a few minutes foam rolling each major muscle group in your legs 1-3x per week as maintenance. Roll your calves, quads, hamstrings, IT band, and glutes. If there’s a certain muscle or area that is extra sensitive, emphasize that area for a week or 2 until it becomes more tolerable. Foam rolling both legs shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes. I typically don’t recommend rolling too close to your joints. It’s easy to irritate tendons, joints, and bursa that are found near your knee. I also like to lay on my foam roll at my mid back and let my arms flop out to the side. This opens up my chest and stretches my thoracic spine. Cyclists tend to have poor posture, and this can help address that – plus it’s super relaxing.
- Stretching: Flexibility of our lumbar spine, hamstrings, quads, calves, hip flexors, glutes, hip abductors/adductors is important to for efficiency of pedal stroke as well as reducing risk of injury. There are at least 4-5 ways to stretch each muscle group so I won’t go into specific versions of each stretch, but I will give you some general guidelines and include some of my favorite stretches at the end of this article. 1.) Make sure you’re warmed up before stretching. This can be as simple as a 5 minute spin on the bike, foam rolling the muscles you plan to stretch, or even taking a hot shower prior to stretching. Cold muscles don’t like to be stretched. Another great time to stretch is after your bike ride. Muscles are loose and it acts as a nice warm-down. 2.) Make sure to start gentle and gradually increase the intensity of the stretch. Hold 45-60 seconds per stretch and repeat 3 times. 3.) Don’t bounce. A ballistic stretch can make muscles tighter as a protective mechanism and can cause injury to tendons. 4.) Don’t stretch aggressively before a race. If you have a tight area, doing some very light stretching can be beneficial, but intense stretching has been shown to decrease your peak power output.
- Strengthening: If you want huge legs that produce tons of sprinting power, then lifting in the off-season is a good idea. If that’s not your goal, you still need to do some strengthening – your back and “core”. I particularly like core exercises that emphasize a neutral (straight) spine. Planks and bird-dogs are 2 of my favorite core exercises. Sit-ups and crunches tend to put too much pressure on our lumbar and cervical spine (plus they’re so 1987).
These are some general guidelines that I’ve come to believe over the past 20 years as an endurance athlete and 8 years as a physical therapist. If you have specific questions about an injury, seek guidance from a medical practitioner you trust. A good doctor, physical therapist, or chiropractor should be able to guide your individual recovery.
Tyler’s favorite cyclist stretches: Please note that there are literally hundreds of different stretches that are appropriate for cyclists. These are by no means an exhaustive list but a couple of my personal favorites.
- Prone pressups – 10 second hold
- Supine hamstring stretch with strap/towel
- Standing or prone quad stretch
- Foam roll or exercise ball pec stretch
- Standing calf stretch against wall
- Piriformis / Glute stretch
- IT Band Stretch
- Hip adductor/hamstring stretch
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