The Best Stretches for Before and After Your Ride

Published on 05/13/2023 · 7 min readWhether you are new to the sport or a seasoned triathlete, here are a few of the best stretches to help cyclists to stay injury-free this season!
Ryan C, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Ryan C

Photo by Greg Rakozy

Origins of Reduced Flexibility

Most cyclists are revered for having powerful muscles and efficient aerobic and cardiovascular systems. The same cannot be said for their level of flexibility. Cyclists prefer to head to the couch or the fridge after a ride instead of stretching properly. But a few minutes of dedicated and purposeful post-ride stretching keeps the body and muscles supple. It prevents future injury and allows us to enjoy the sport even more.

Bicycling requires constant pedaling, which doesn’t extend and contract the leg muscles equally. The muscles shorten (contract), but don’t fully lengthen (extend). Studies show this causes progressive muscle shortening over time as muscle fibers adapt to our physical work.

Postural Changes and More

Photo by Joyce Mccown

This ultimately causes postural changes, imbalances, and reduced range of motion if not properly controlled and addressed. Stretching can limit or improve performance. Consider the elite time trialist. In competition, they put themselves in extreme positions as they pedal. Tight muscles prevent them from adopting and holding narrow and low positions to achieve an ideal aerodynamic profile. As a result, tight muscles affect performance. You may not be an elite time trialist, but the benefits related to stretching are noteworthy and, based on injury prevention alone, should be taken into consideration considerably.

Schedule Time to Stretch

Photo by Eric Rothermel

To reduce tightness and the potential for pain, a regular stretching routine should be incorporated into our lifestyle and be treated no differently than a bike ride or training session. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching two to three times per week. Cyclists should prioritize the muscle groups most often used on the bike while including total-body movements.

Static vs. Dynamic

The woman on the left does a static stretch where she just holds a position. On the right, two stages of a dynamic stretch where the woman is moving her back to get a stretch. Photos by Josh Duke (left) and A Healthier Michigan (right top and bottom)

Did you know there is more than one form of stretching? The main two are called static and dynamic. Both have a time and purpose but aren’t interchangeable. Static stretching is what we see most often when you stand still and hold your body in the strained (static) and pain-free position for as long as possible.

Static stretches are best performed as a cool-down after your ride when your body is already warmed up. Despite common assumptions, static stretching before a ride is not advised. It is harder and increases the chance of injury from a muscle pull or strain.

Dynamic stretching involves controlled movements that prepare your body for activity. Actively moving joints and ligaments through various motions prepares the body for action. It allows muscles to warm up slowly so they stretch but not pull. As a result, they are best as a warmup prior to riding.

Guidelines for Dynamic Stretching

  • Warm-up muscles before engaging in stretching routines. This includes massage, warmers, simple movements, etc.
  • Move through a full range of controlled motion with the muscles actively used in the sport.
  • Control the movement. It should be fluid and not throw the body or limbs around.
  • Dynamic stretching movement shouldn’t be painful; start gradually and progress in speed.

Top Three Dynamic Stretches for Cyclists

1. Leg Swings

This is a quick way to reduce tight hips and increase mobility. It not only targets your hips but also your hamstrings, quadriceps (quads), and calves.

How It’s Done

  1. Stand on one side of your bike with one hand on the seat and the other on the handlebar (or top tube).
  2. Keep your right leg firmly planted on the ground while keeping the left leg extended and straight.
  3. Swing the leg forward and back in a controlled manner
  4. Perform 10-15 swings.
  5. Switch the movement from forward and backward to side to side.
  6. Do another 10-15 swings.
  7. Repeat with the other leg.

2. Shoulder Reach

This motion is like the leg swings but addresses the upper body. The arms aren’t often considered an active component; they act as stabilizers and accumulate a lot of tension as they hold the body in place on the bike.

How It’s Done

  1. Stand straight and tall, extend your arms straight over the head, fingers pointing to the sky.
  2. Shrug your shoulders up and down.
  3. Perform three-second holds for 10-15 movements in each position and direction.

3. Upward and Downward Facing Dog

Keeping your back engaged and primed for stability helps maintain a powerful platform for the body to engage in activity, but also helps keep the system pliable.

How It’s Done

  1. Start with your hands and knees on the floor.
  2. Lower your hips to the ground while lifting your head up and lowering your knees to the floor.
  3. Lift your hips up, pushing your hips toward the ceiling while your heels remain on the floor and your torso straight.
  4. Hold each position for three seconds for 10-15 movements, alternating between them.

Guidelines for Static Stretching

  • Ensure muscles are warm.
  • Slowly progress the stretch to the end of your range of motion. There will be resistance, but you should never feel pain.
  • Hold the stretch for 20-45 seconds without bouncing.
  • Hold each stretch for 20-45 seconds and repeat three to four times.

Top Four Static Stretches for Cyclists

1. Hip Flexor Stretch

Photo by Klaus Nielsen

This stretch helps to relax the hips after a ride. Zone tightness is common among cyclists after a ride. The reaction is a natural byproduct of the riding position and soreness post-exercise.

How It’s Done

  1. Place your right knee on the floor with the left foot in front at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Tilt your pelvis up toward your rib cage. You should feel tension on the front of the hip.
  3. Slowly push your hip forward toward the foot in front to deepen the stretch.
  4. Do not arch your back.
  5. Hold.
  6. Repeat.

2. Lower Back Rotation

Photo by Miriam Alonso

The back, especially the lower back, is a large static muscle group when riding. This stretch reduces low back tension while loosening the outer hips and chest, too.

How It’s Done

  1. Lie down on the floor with your back to the ground.
  2. Bend both knees and cross one leg over the other.
  3. Keep the arms out to your sides, palms facing down and flat for stability.
  4. Gently exhale and drop your legs towards the floor in the same direction as the crossed top leg.
  5. Hold.
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

3. Calf Stretch With Wall

Photo by Miriam Alonso

The calf, actively used in the pedal stroke, is a key facilitator in what keeps it smooth. A wall helps you stretch and relax the muscle more deeply after heavy use.

How It’s Done

  1. Stand facing a wall with your feet pointing toward it.
  2. Place your hands flat on the wall at shoulder height.
  3. Slide one leg behind you, about two feet away, keeping your toes facing forward.
  4. Lean into your front leg while keeping your back knee straight and your foot firmly planted on the ground. Maintain upper back posture.
  5. Hold.
  6. Switch legs.
  7. Repeat.

4. Hamstring Stretch

Photo by Jane Palash 

This stretch is ideal for loosening the pelvis. Reducing hamstring tightness gets you in a more comfortable position to generate maximal power.

How It’s Done

  1. Start with one knee bent at 90 degrees under you with the other leg out front in a half-kneeling position.
  2. Slowly straighten your knee as you sit back on your heel while keeping your chest upright. Bonus: Push forward to increase the stretch.
  3. Hold.
  4. Switch legs.
  5. Repeat.

Make Time

The next time you finish a ride, don’t forget to stretch! While the thought of lounging or crashing on the couch is more attractive, consider the upside and the extra benefits that come with stretching. It’ll take you further, and possibly faster, on your next ride!

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