Another season begins, the snow melts, and the flowers bloom. The giddiness and excitement of your new bike overwhelms you and you’re putting a ton of kilometers in the bank. Your quadriceps are sore, your hamstrings are tight, your hips begin to seize. This is all part of getting faster, right? Wrong. Speed and strength does not have to come at the expense of mobility.
Due to the repetitive nature of the pedal stroke, cycling puts us in a particularly vulnerable situation. We spend hours hunched over the bars, spinning our legs at 100 revolutions per minute. The impact is low, but over time the muscular imbalances take a toll. Adding mobility and stability off the bike will bring your riding to the next level.
We’ve heard it a thousand times: “Stretch!” But before you stretch, there are a few things to understand before you go whole hog and start lunging in the car park before the Saturday club ride.
Dynamic Stretching is the best way to get your body prepped for the rigors of your ride. While static stretching has been shown to negatively impact speed and power, dynamic stretching will get blood to your muscles, and mobility in your joints. Get a few of these dynamic stretches in before you down your coffee and crumpets.
Throughout the Ride
It’s still early in the season (remember?) and you’re barely hanging on late in your club ride, and your shoulder, neck and back are acting up. Take the time to move around a bit. Stretch your neck, roll your shoulders and move your back. Cramping or feel a twinge in your calf? Skip a few turns in the rotation in order to take a minute to stretch those tight muscles.
Post Ride Stretching
You made it home, had your shower and post ride nutrition. Time to take a few minutes to reset your muscles. Have a look at ILB contributor Jem’s post ride routine. Post-activity stretching has been shown to reduce Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness (DOMS), increase rates of recovery and improve range of motion in your joints. While there is some debate as to how long you should stretch, anywhere between 15-30 seconds will yield the desired results. There is no debate, however, as to how deep you should stretch: Make sure you are only stretching as deep as it feels comfortable. Any signs of pain, pinching or discomfort signals that it is time to back off a tad. Stretching longer than 60 seconds, or deeper than comfortable is more than likely causing unnecessary trauma.
Mobility & Yoga
Yoga is trendy, but the activity has been around for thousands of years (in comparison, the bicycle is about 200 years old). Yoga provides focus to both static and dynamic stretching, and always adds a component of movement to the practice. The nature of the sport and the position on a bike renders basic balance and maintenance a challenge. As time and intensity on the bike increases, certain muscles are worked to exhaustion, while others become dormant and atrophy. With a very limited range of motion of the legs, and a virtually static upper body, finding movement in other directions, off the bike, is vital to longevity. If yoga isn’t your thing, adding some basic functional stability workouts will help. While yoga stresses mobility and flexibility, functional strength training stresses strength and stability– Both have their place in a monthly cycling training plan. An hour or two a month dedicated to mobility will help you in a few key areas.
80 percent of your aerodynamic drag is caused by your position on the bike (sadly, the $10,000 aero bike will only help you 20% of the way. Imagine how fast you would be if you invested $10,000 in your position and coaching?). Adding a few yoga practices to your training plan will slowly improve your position and gift you a handful of free watts. Wind tunnel testing suggests that a position change can improve your aerodynamic drag by well over 20%. That might be the difference of being able to ride with the A group instead of the B group!
Yoga and functional strength training will frequently introduce movement in directions other than forward and backward. Forcing you to engage your core and stabilizer muscles will improve bike handling and stability on the bike. The changes are subtle, but feeling more confident into corners, descending and staying in an aerodynamic position when on the front of your club ride are not to be ignored.
Adding a few days of strength and mobility may also reveal weaknesses and muscle imbalances that you didn’t realize you had. Did a certain yoga practice relieve some chronic back pain? Maybe side lunges will suddenly ease knee pain that you recently discovered.
It should be noted that certain types of yoga can be pretty tough on your muscles. A rigorous Vinyasa or a slow, deep stretch Yin class can have your legs feeling pretty slow on the bike the next day. Plan an easy ride for a day after yoga. Taking the time to assess your body off the bike will give you an added boost in confidence and self awareness.
Get on the roller. If you haven’t heard a friend say this, get some new ones. The foam roller is your new best friend. Fascial tissue has been neglected for a long time, and is only making it to the mainstream in recent years.
What is Fascial Tissue
There is a lot of current research on fascial tissue, but it used to be regarded as the sack of tissue that keeps all of your muscles and organs in place. The new understanding of fascia suggests that the membrane act like a coil providing direction, stability and recovery to muscle tissues. Neglecting this vital tissue may be hurting your performance on the bike. A number of recent studies show that fascial release (like getting on a foam roller) reduces injury and increases function of the muscles. When we do exercise, we create scar tissue– Massaging your legs with a foam roller will release built up scar tissue and allow the fascia to realign itself and function more efficiently.
Let’s be honest, we aren’t professional cyclists even if we have a soigneur at home. We are weekend warriors, and have very little time outside of family, and work obligations — But maybe a bit of cross training will pay more dividends than you expect.
I come from a background in (American) football. When I started cycling, I came into the sport carrying all of the baggage from football (both physical mass and methodology for training). There was very little focus on mobility and flexibility. In the off season we had a rigorous training plan that included 4 heavy lifting days, interlaced with 2-3 practices per week. The workouts were not functional, and were focused on building a lot of mass. In any case, over the course of my career, I naively assumed that mobility and flexibility would ultimately come at the expense of strength– The reality is just the opposite. Working on mobility, flexibility and stability will only improve your functional performance. 5 years removed from contact sports, I am now clearly seeing the benefits of introducing strength training and yoga throughout the season. I’m getting faster and stronger while simultaneously becoming more stable and much more mobile.