If you’re flexible enough, you can race in aero positions that others will have difficulty holding. More power, more efficiency, more speed, more miles, more podiums.
Previously, I wrote about how stretching can benefit your cycling. But I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of which stretches to do, how to do them, or why you’re tortur… er, I mean, working yourself so hard doing them. Below, I’m going to get into the stretches that I’ve been doing and have found help me not only recover from hard riding, but allow me to maintain those aero positions that’ll help in time trials and attacks (off the front OR back).
You don’t need a long stretching session to see the benefits of relaxed muscles and less muscle fatigue. If you’re pressed for time, hit up the tightest muscle groups, and spend maybe 3-5 minutes total. Doesn’t take long. But if you want to really see the benefits of stretching in your cycling position, then you’ll want to incorporate a solid 15+ minute stretching session after your rides. Like any other type of training, consistency is key.
PLEASE NOTE! I am NOT a doctor, a trainer, or whatever else might get me sued. I’m just some dude who rides bikes and has found the stretching he does has benefited his cycling. If any of this causes injury, then you never read this! 😉
General Rules of Static Stretching
Use the following guidelines for each of these stretches.
- ALWAYS make sure your muscles are warm prior to doing static stretching. Doing static (held position) stretches without being warm can damage your muscles.
- After a ride – especially a hard one – don’t immediately start static stretching. Walk around or do some light, dynamic stretching to let the muscles relax a bit before starting static stretching.
- Once you’ve gotten into the proper stretching position and start feeling the pull of the stretch in the proper muscle or muscle group, take a deep breath in, and then exhale slowly, relaxing into the position and giving yourself a little more stretch.
- For timing, waiting to start counting until you’ve relaxed into the position (see #3, above). For beginners, hold your stretch for about 10-12s. After four or five stretching sessions, increase this to 15-20s, and after two weeks increase to 20-25s.
- Various studies have shown that holding static stretches longer than 30s does not provide any additional benefit.
- While stretching, keep a picture in your mind of the muscle or muscle group you are stretching. Picture it relaxing and elongating.
- While stretching, keep other muscle groups relaxed. Tensing surrounding muscle groups will decrease the benefits of the stretch you’re getting. For example, if you’re stretching your right leg, try to keep your left leg relaxed.
- BREATH! The muscles need oxygen, especially after rigorous exercise. We’ve depleted them with our anaerobic craziness, so now we have to feed them. Take long, steady breaths in and out.
- You will feel discomfort – that’s okay. Being uncomfortable will tell you when you’re reached the limit of your current stretching length. This is good information, and you can work slightly beyond it – like pushing your legs up a hard climb.
- You should NOT feel pain. If at any point you feel sharp or stabbing pain, stop stretching immediately.
- After each stretch, don’t just pop right out of that position. Slowly release the stretch.
- DO NOT BOUNCE! You’re doing static stretching. Though ballistic stretching (bouncing) has it’s uses, it doesn’t have a place for cyclists, and is most likely going to result in injury.
Hamstrings & Calves
This is one of the first stretches I do, because it eases me into the other stretches.
- Bend from the waist slowly forward, keeping your back straight as you bend.
- Your standing leg does not need to be bent very much, and should not be bent to the point it can’t steadily hold your weight.
- If you can’t flex your foot without your shin or quad growing too tight (or if you can’t hold your foot up with your hands), consider placing your toes up against a door jam, wall, or staircase, but somewhere you can still bend forward.
- Bend forward until you feel your hamstring growing tight. Breath in deeply and exhale, relaxing into the position. Picture the thigh and calf elongating as you breath out.
- Start your timing count. Remember to breath.
- If you can, place your hands on the sides of your thigh to pull your upper-body down lightly. If you can reach your calf, you can pull from there. Optimally, you will be able to reach the front of your foot and pull your foot lightly.
Our calves are working through a large arc of our cycling motion, and though we try to keep our ankles from flexing, it’s the calves that do that for us. The first stretch begins to loosen the calf, but this stretch is what’s going to really hit it.
There are two ways that you can do this stretch. The first is using a wall, as pictured to the right. This has the advantage of being able to adjust how you you stretch your calves, and you can fully relax into the position (it’s my preferred method).
- Place the bottom of the foot on the leg you intend to stretch against the wall. The more flexible your ankles are, the flatter you can place your foot.
- Straighten your standing leg and move your body towards the wall. Once your calf becomes tight, breath in deeply and exhale. Keep your toes, your foot, and your calf in mind and consciously relax as you exhale, starting from your toes, through your foot, and up through the calf. This will give you a little more flexion.
- Start your timing count. Remember to breath.
The second method is by using a bar or stairs. When you completely relax the calves, your body weight will push your calves to their maximum length. You also get to stretch both calves simultaneously. The problem with this position though is that you have to utilize the calves in order to get into and out of the position, so for harder days on the bike, I’d recommend the one above, which also allows you to control the stretch more accurately. You also can’t relax the toes or foot as well, since you’re utilizing those, whereas the stretch above allows you the stretch all the way from the toes through the calf.
Standing Glutes and Hamstrings
Another one of the warm-up stretches before I get to the deeper stuff. It opens up the hips, which as cyclists we tend to ignore. The hips and all the muscles involved there are very important, because it acts as a stable platform that your legs work off of.
- Place your feet about twice shoulder width apart.
- Bend slowly forward from the waist, keeping your back nice and flat as you do. You’ll feel tension in your glutes, hamstrings, a little in your calves, and some tension in your hips.
- Once you’ve bent forward as far as you can, slowly relax the upper body forward. Pay attention not to let your hips roll up as you do so. Ultimately, you’ll want to be able to bend completely over with as little rolling of the back as possible.
- If you can touch the floor doing this, bend your elbows, so that your body weight continues to apply pressure to the stretch.
- If you need a little more, take hold of the back of your calves or your feet.
- This is a passive stretch, so don’t pull hard. It’s to warm you up for other stretches.
Side Lunge Stretches
There are actually two stretches for this set. The first one is a side lunge with the extended leg’s foot flat on the ground, and the second rolls the leg so the toes are pointed up.
First stretch will work on the inner-thigh (leg adductor muscle group). One might question why we would want to stretch the adductors, since they’re not involved in that forward circular motion of pedaling. The reason is that the adductors act as guides, stabilizing our legs from swinging too far out. Our abductors (which we’ll stretch with our glutes later) keep our legs for going too far in. These balance and stabilize our pedal stroke, and support our primary muscle groups. If these get too tight, your legs can end up out of proper pedaling position, leading to an inefficient stroke.
- With legs approx twice shoulder width apart, slowly drop your weight towards one leg, leaving the other extended.
- Try to keep both feet flatly planted on the ground. If your ankles aren’t flexible enough to keep your weighted-foot flat, then it’s okay to have it raised up slightly, but make sure your extended leg’s foot is flat.
- Drop your body as far down as it will go. If you can sit on the supported leg, that’s optimal, but that requires a lot of flexibility in the ankles.
- Place your hands on the ground for balance (unlike the picture, we’re none of of yoga experts).
- With your body facing forward, lean your shoulder towards the extended leg.
After you’ve held this first position, switch the second stretch, which will work the hamstrings.
- Turn the foot on your extended leg so your toes are pointed up.
- For a light stretch, keep your body forward but lean your shoulder towards the leg as in the previous stretch.
- If you need more of a stretch, turn your body so you are facing the extended leg, and bending at the waist, lean over the leg.
Seated Saddle Stretch (also called Groin Stretch)
Okay, we’ve gotten the easy stuff out of the way. Now it’s time to work. This is probably one of the least-liked stretches, but it’s also one that’s super helpful for the adductors, hamstrings, and glutes. This is a three part stretch.
OPTION: If seated straddle stretching is too hard to start with, see the “Optional Wall Straddle” below.
- From a seated position, extension your legs so they’re flat on the ground.
- Slowly move your legs apart until they’re as wide as they’ll.
- Keeping your back flat, slowly lean forward.
- Guaranteed your hips will resist this motion. You can’t force this stretch; this one is all about relaxing.
- Place your hands on the ground in front of you, but don’t use them to hold your body up. Instead, slowly walk your hands forward, keeping your arms and your back straight.
- Once you’ve gone as far as your hips will allow you to go, walk your hands forward a little more. To do this, pretend you’re trying to lift your hands towards the ceiling.
- For beginners, it will probably take you a good 20-30s just to get into the proper position, so take your time. Don’t rush this one.
- Sit back up slowly.
- Turn your upper body so that it faces over one of your legs.
- Bending at the waist, reach forward down your leg, trying to keep your back flat.
- You can optionally take hold of your thigh, calf, or ultimately your foot.
- Keep in mind that you’re not trying to touch your head to your knee. Instead, picture touching your head to your foot. Elongating the body rather than curling it.
- Keep the non-stretching leg as relaxed as possible.
- Start your timing.
- After your down, slowly raise up and repeat for the second leg.
- Once you you’ve stretched toward the front and towards each leg, repeat the front stretch.
- Take a deep breath in, and slowly release it. You’ll find you can go further this time than the first time, because stretching to each side will have loosened up the associated muscles.
Optional Wall Straddle Stretch
Sometimes it’s hard to start with seated straddle stretching. To get you used to the position while still getting a good stretch on your adductors, do the following:
- Lay on the ground with your legs up against a wall.
- Slowly leg your legs fall open to the sides.
- It can be helpful to use your hands to guide your legs down.
- Your legs may have a tendency to bounce/resist as you bring them out. Breath deeply and exhale, relaxing your legs into the position.
- Once your legs stop moving, you can start your timing count.
Hamstrings and Calves Again
This is yet another stretch most people can’t stand (admittedly, even I hate it). But it’s great for the hamstrings and calves. I usually do it right after the seated straddle stretch.
- Take a seated position with your legs together (or if you just did seated straddle, slowly brings your legs together.
- Keeping your back straight, bend forward from the waist over your legs. Imagine your diaphragm being pulled towards your feet.
- Don’t curl the back, and don’t worry about grabbing your toes to start.
- Once you’ve leaned forward as far as you can naturally go, take hold of your outer thighs, calves, or ultimately your toes, and gently pull your body forward.
- Note that I said forward and not down. A downward pull will force your back to roll, which in turn relaxes the stretch on your hamgstrings.
Sometimes this stretch is too intense for some people with both legs outstretched. If so, fold one leg in towards the other leg, but follow the rest of the stretch instructions above.
Glutes and Obliques
Your glutes are a group of muscles that or often neglected in both stretching and development, As anyone who’s tried a time trial for the first time will know. Apart from flexible hamstrings, flexible glutes are going to be one of the biggest parts in attaining and maintaining an aero position on the bike. Strong and flexible glutes will add power to the down stroke that our quads make up the bulk of, and will allow you to access more power from that aero position. So first up, a light glute stretch.
- Leaving your right leg flat and sitting up straight, take the left leg and cross it over the right leg, placing the left foot just above your right knee, flat on the ground.
- Using your right arm, pull the outside of your left leg towards the right side of the body.
- As you pull, make sure that your butt is flat on the ground, and that you’re sitting up straight.
- Twist your upper body left to elongate the glute farther.
- If you want even more (and who doesn’t?), place your right elbow on the outside of the left knee (bent leg), extend your arm straight and use this to twist the body farther.
Prone Glutes and Obliques
After doing the oblique stretch sitting up, switching from one side to the other, I often like to take it further with a similar stretch, but laying down.
- Lay flat on your back, keeping both shoulders against the ground.
- Bend your right leg until your right foot is in line with your left knee.
- Using your left hand, grad the outside of your right knee and slowly pull your leg to the left side of the body.
- Pay attention to keep the motion of the pull perpendicular to the direction of your spine.
- As you pull with your left arm, picture your right hip pull back in the opposite direction, as if you were trying to keep your right button on the ground.
Knee Raise (Glutes #3)
Working more of the middle of the glute rather than the middle and side, this is relatively simple, but effective. You can get the same stretch by doing a standing deep lunge, only then you have to deal with stability and other activated muscles.
- While laying down, bend your knee up and grab with both hands.
- Using your arms, pull your knee upwards towards your head.
- As you pull your knee upwards, remember to keep your hips against the ground.
- Also take a moment to consciously relax the opposite leg.
No, I don’t have a glute fixation. Yes, this will help you get aero. The more flexible your glutes, the more you can roll your hips forward on the bike and get that low, elongated position without bending/rolling your back.
There are two ways to do this stretch. I usually do it prone, but you can also do it while seated.
NOTE: If your hamstrings are tight, I would avoid this stretch, as I’ve had my hamstring lock up in the middle of it, and well… it wasn’t pretty.
- While laying down, bend your right leg and place the outside of your right foot above your left knee.
- Slowly bend your left leg until you can grab both sides of your left thigh.
- Keeping your back flat on the ground, slowly pull your left thigh up towards your head using your arms.
- Before pulling with your arms, take a moment to consciously relax both legs. Especially consider your hips. Let your legs hang naturally, meaning to not attempt to use your hip flexors to hold your legs up.
If you choose to do this seated:
- Choose a chair that leaves your thigh horizontal to the ground.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee, leaving your left foot firmly planted on the ground.
- With your left hand on foot, and your right hand on your knee, slowly bend forward from the waist, keeping your back straight as you do.
- Just like above, make sure to relax the legs and the hips, so that your upper body weight is laying over the legs creating the stretch, and you’re not pulling yourself down by your hip flexors.
The quads are the largest muscle group in the body… and yet there are very few actual ways to stretch it. Ultimately, each comes down to flexion of the knee (and in some cases of the hip). So, I keep it simple. A bent quad stretch can be done either standing (usually holding a wall or chair), or laying on your side. I find the standing one to be better as it allows me to completely relax my hamstraing and glute, whereas the prone one sometimes I tend to tense other muscles in my leg. Because the quads are such a large and important muscle group, I have often used this stretch both in the middle of my stretching routine and at the end, doing the same stretch twice.
- Take hold of a chair or wall with one hand.
- With your other hand, grab the ankle of your stretching leg and lift it behind you.
- Make sure to pull up towards the head, rather than out behind you, or in towards your back.
- Before you pull up, completely relax the glute, hip, and hamstring of the leg you’ve lifted, so that there’s no tension in the leg (if you leg go, your leg should immediately fall down, not be held in tension at all).
- Roll onto your side.
- On the side you’re not laying on, grab your ankle with your arm.
- Pull your foot up towards your head (not behind you or in towards your back).
There are other quad stretches such as a lunge stretch, but I’ve found that these tend to keep tension on other muscles in unfavorable ways, or can injure or be uncomfortable/painful for the knees.
Core – Abs, Obliques, and Serratus
A well-stretched core and back are important for getting into and maintaining a good aero position. In a laid-out aero position, your core, back, traps, lats, shoulders, and obliques are all working to maintain that position. Over time, these will get tight, so stretching them is important after a good, long race or time trial. First, the core:
- Laying on your front, place your palms by your shoulders.
- Slowly push up, keeping the head up, and letting the chest and abs drop forward.
- Try to keep your hips on or as close to the ground as possible. Once your hips start to rise up off the ground, you’ve lifted up high enough.
Glutes (again) and Lats
Oops, maybe I do have a glute fixation. Anyway, after stretching your abs, this stretch will put your spine back in place somewhat.
- While laying on the ground, place your palms by your shoulders.
- Lift your hips and slide back until you are sitting on your heals. Let your palms drag out against the ground as you sit back.
- Pull your shoulders down towards the ground. If you don’t feel much of a stretch along the outside of your back, start over, with your hands farther above your shoulders or head.
Lats, back, and traps
Continuing from the above stretch, we’re going to stretch out our upper back now. I believe this is called cat stretch in yoga circles.
- On hands and knees, arch your back up to the ceiling, while dropping your head and keeping your arms straight.
- Pull up from the stomach and up into the upper back.
- After holding this position for 10 seconds or so, switch so that your back is arched down, and your head is facing up towards the ceiling, again with your arms straight.
More Lats, plus Pecs and Shoulders
Our upper bodies can become just as tight as our legs, so it’s important not to ignore them when it comes to stretching. First, we’ll continue our way up the body with this stretch:
- Stand in front of a counter or table with your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart.
- Place your palms flat onto the counter, and bend down from the waist, keeping your back flat.
- Bend until your body weight is hanging from your arms. If you have bad shoulders (like me) shift your weight back towards your butt rather than straight down.
- Relax your back and hang down into this position.
- After holding this centered position for your timing count, I also tend to shift my weight over my left shoulder and then my right shoulder, holding each shift of weight for about 10-15s.
The traps run along most of the spine, and can definitely get tight after a long aero session. Use this stretch to release the tension from the traps and your neck.
- Behind your back, grab your left write with your right hand.
- While gently tugging your left wrist towards the right side of your body, slowly tilt your head towards the right side of your body, keeping your head slightly forward as you do so.
Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL)
This is one of the weird muscles that can cause some of the biggest problems in my book. It’s a relatively small muscle that runs from the top of the hip forward and down to the side, connecting to the Iliotibual (IT) Band – the ligament that runs all along the outside of the thigh. If you find your legs pulling outward, or the outer portion of the thigh is really tight, the issue probably isn’t the underlying muscles of the quad (vastus lateralis muscle), but the IT band being pulled by that muscle at the top of the IT band – the TFL. Unfortunately, this thing is notoriously hard to stretch. I’ve only found one stretch that works for me, and the picture below-right is as close as I can get to how it looks.
- Stand with your left side next to a counter or table (something that won’t move). Use your left hand to hold onto the counter. Unlike the image above, I use my none stretching arm to hold onto the counter or table so I can really drop my weight against that outside hip flexor.
- Cross your right leg behind your left leg.
- Let your body weight shift to the right side while keeping your right leg straight, crossed behind your left.
- Lift your right arm over your head and read towards the left side of your body.