What Muscles Should I Be Stretching To Become A Better Cyclist?
Recently, Pioneer released a video captioned ‘Which muscles are used when riding a bike?’ and it got me thinking about how we treat the muscles that we put through so much stress day to day while cycling so we can grab that KOM, set a new PB, or chase the feeling of crossing the line first.
Stretching is an integral part of an athlete’s lifestyle and something we all wish we did more of. Since beginning my study of remedial massage last year I’ve been thinking more and more about how my body works and how to properly care for my muscles to become a better cyclist. The golden rule of muscles is that a long muscle is a strong muscle, meaning that the more elongated a muscle is the more room the muscle fibers have to contract, therefore creating more force — which to a cyclist means more watts. But what should we be stretching? What muscles are really being used and when? The video (shown below) breaks down the pedal stroke into 6 muscle groups: Glutes, Quads, Calves, Dorsiflexors, Hamstrings, and Hip Flexors in that order. Let’s look at some of the muscles in these groups and how we can stretch them.
The Gluteal muscles are an extremely important group of muscles tasked with helping the body stay upright when we’re standing, and the muscle group that kicks in first in the pedal stroke. Made up of Glute Max, Glute Med, and Glute Min, we’ll look at two of these muscles and how to release tension that comes from repetitive use.
Glue Max is the main gluteal muscle that works in the pedal stroke and is also the largest muscle in the human body. It’s job is hip extension which means it works with the quads to push our foot down and straighten the leg from the hip joint so it’s a really important part of the stroke. It’s only natural then that this muscle would be tight from overuse, but the stretch we can use to give us the most efficient glute max is one that you’ve probably been known since you were taught it in primary school PE.
While Glute Med is a smaller muscle and technically it’s main job isn’t even hip extension, it still works with glute max when we’re really pushing, so it falls victim to a lot of referred muscle stress from glute max. Interestingly, it also plays a part in the tension you might feel in your lower back right around your hips. After a long day on the bike if you’ve ever got home and done nothing other than shower and eat before falling asleep, chances are you’ve felt this lower back tension — this stretch really helps with your glute mobility as well as the ability to stay in a nice low, aero position for longer, while maintaining a strong core.
The Quadriceps muscles are the muscles at the front of our thighs and funnily enough is a group made up of four muscles; Rectus Femoris, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and Vastus Lateralis (and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of riding behind ex-professional cyclist Graeme Brown you will no doubt have noticed just how great a good set of Vastus Lateralis can look). The thing that separates the Rectus Femoris from the Vastii group is that Rec Fem crosses the hip joint and the knee joint, while the Vastii only cross the knee joint — this is why stretching your quads should be split up into two stretches.
Because Rec Fem crosses the hip joint, it works together with the other hip flexors that are explained later in the article, and it also requires a different stretch to really isolate it. Other than being a hip flexor, it’s job is to assist with knee extension which means it follows on from the drive of the quads to push down on the pedals and straighten the leg. The stretch is a variation on another one of your basic stretches but it feels great to stretch out and loosen the quads.
So we know the Vastii work with Rec Fem to extend the knee — but what’s the business with Medialis, Intermedius, and Lateralis? Well they surround the Femur (the bone of the thigh) from the outside of the leg (laterally) to the inside of the leg (medially). If you were to look at an anatomical view of the Vastii you would see that Vas Lat is quite a lot bigger than Vas Med and Vas Int and and interesting fact is that the Vas Med has muscle fibers running in two different directions — one to assist in knee extension and one to counter act the outwards pull of Vas Lat. The stretch for the Vastii is the same as Rec Fem without the pelvic tilt.
Calves are the bane of my existence for two reasons — mine have always been and will always be tiny, and because I ride with some guys who have great calves that make me jealous every time I clip in to ride with them. They work to finish off that downward stroke before the ankle kicks in to switch our push motion to a pull motion. They really assist when a pedal stroke has been dialed in to perfection and make a difference between efficient and inefficient pedal stroke. An interesting point about Gastrocnemius and Soleus is that they both attach to the Calcaneal (Achilles) Tendon which then connects to the tissue on the bottom of the foot. We should pay more attention to our calves, because our feet spend hours inside carbon soled, and sometimes carbon bodied shoes all day which puts a lot of stress on the tiny muscles in the foot and ankle joint.
The Gastrocnemius forms the upper part of the calf and has two heads — giving that two-sided bulge look. The gastroc’s job is ankle plantar flexion which means it helps us push down with the ball of our foot before we start pulling up on the pedals. The gastroc differs from the Soleus in that it crosses the knee joint as well as the ankle joint and also assists in knee flexion. The stretch I recommend for this is slightly different to one you might know, but I find it a much more palpable stretch and one that can be done at a bus stop or waiting at traffic lights if you’re willing to accept the looks people will give you.
We know that gastroc crosses the knee joint and that Soleus doesn’t — so this means that Soleus is there to work solely (pun intended) to plantar flex the foot. It’s the big beefy muscle that sits under the gastroc and gives the calf the impression that it looks like an upside down bottle. Because it doesn’t cross the knee joint, we want to make sure the knee is slightly bent before we start to stretch the Soleus so that we’re not stretching gastroc instead.
Dorsiflexion — as seen above — is the action of bringing your toes towards your shin and is realistically performed by a number of muscles running along the outside portion of the front of your leg. These muscles interact with the ankle and the foot to move your toes as well and it’s really cool how they all connect and act. They really start our pulling motion on the pedals and form a solid basis for us to make the most of clipless pedals.
Tibialis Anterior is a fantastically interesting muscle in how it crosses over the ankle joint and works on the foot and is a real dominant force in pulling the front of our foot up towards our shins. When you’re all about refining your pedal stroke for maximum efficiency, it’s a really important part of the cycle. The stretch for Tib Ant is really easy and can be done just about anywhere that you can sit.
We’ve all heard about hamstrings before — the muscles on the back of our legs which are usually the limiting factor of whether or not we can touch our toes. That’s because their job is to take our legs backwards at the hip, and bring our feet to our buttocks by flexing at the knee. One muscle runs down the outside of our leg — Biceps Femoris — and two run down the outside — Semitendonosis and Semimembranosis — but we stretch them all together.
Because they’re such long muscles and work over two joints, we can separate stretches into ones that isolate the muscle belly (towards the center and lower part of the muscle near the knee) and ones that isolate the origin of the muscle (towards the upper part of the muscle near the pelvis). There’s plenty of variations on these stretches but here’s two I find work well in a lot of scenarios.
Hamstring Origin Stretch
Hamstring Muscle Belly Stretch
The Hip Flexors are a group of muscles which do just that — flex the hip. That means they bring our knees to our chest and allow us on the bike to get lower and really drive our feet up and over the pedals. Cyclists commonly have really tight hip flexors which can lead to all kinds of adjustments in posture off the bike so they’re a group we should pay a lot of attention to! The main muscle in the group are Tensor Fascia Latae or TFL and Iliopsoas and we’ll look at them below.
Tensor Fasciae Latae
The TFL is a really awesome muscle in how much it does for the body. While it’s an incredibly strong hip flexor, it also works to stabilise the hips while standing, as well as rotation and abduction. Because of it’s all-rounder nature, it’s a really strong muscle and gets used a lot — meaning we need to take extra care to keep it long and healthy. Like glute max, it attaches to the Iliotibial Band or ITB which is a buzzword for athletes. The ITB is a super long, tight tendon which crosses the knee joint and helps us stabilise our knees. If the ITB becomes too tight it can cause knee and hip pain — but remember, as a tendon it’s meant to be thick and tight, so releasing the muscles attached to the ITB will be an effective way to relieve tension. Never roll directly on your ITB.
Iliopsoas is actually two muscles — Iliacus and Psoas Major — which we group together due to how deeply layered in the body they are. An attached image shows the position of the Iliopsoas muscles, but it’s important to remember that they’re located below a lot of superficial muscles like our abs, so they’re quite hard to locate on ourselves. As a hip flexor, they work really hard to bring our legs up, and it’s easy to see how having overly tight hip flexors can give us lower back pain. Keeping these long and loose will allow you to get lower, meaning you stay out of the wind and get more aero. It’s important to note that having a strong core gives the Iliopsoas muscles a really strong base to work with, so never underestimate a good core workout.
And that’s the muscles used in your pedal stroke. Everyone has their own opinions of stretching, how and when we should do it, or if people should stretch at all. For a long time I never stretched simply because no one had ever instilled the mentality into me at any time in my life. It wasn’t until I worked a desk job where we were encouraged to stretch every day that I finally began to lengthen my hamstrings so I could touch my toes, so I have faith in stretching. It’s always good to keep in mind that you can definitely over stretch muscles, so try only to hold stretches for around 20–30 seconds and no more than 45–60 seconds, and stretch 2–3 times a day if you can.
That’s is for now, but soon I’ll be addressing some other muscles which aren’t exactly used in the pedal stroke but which often fall victim to referred muscle tension and shortening due to position.