If you’re hooked on cycling as a no-impact, high quality, cardiovascular workout, you already know that these workouts build strength, improve fitness, and even reduce body fat. Cycling is easy on the joints and a great complement to running, weightlifting, and other forms of training. Unfortunately, if you ignore mobility related to cycling, it could turn into a major pain in the backside, as well as reduce your performance on the bike. The hamstrings are an often overlooked muscle group that can play a big role in your comfort and performance on the bike. If you think your low impact cycling workouts are resulting in twinges in your knees, back, or butt, you need to tend to your hamstrings. Here’s some of the best hamstring stretches and how to get better cycling workouts.
Cycling works all of the major muscle groups of the lower body. This includes the quadriceps, glutes, and, yup, the hamstrings. Quads and glutes are the powerhouses of your cycling work. Quads contribute more dominantly to speed and seated work. Glutes give us strength for climbs, both in and out of the saddle. The hamstrings also contribute to completing these activities with control, resulting in better efficiency and reduced risk of injury.
The actions of the hamstrings include flexing (i.e. bending) the knee and extending (i.e. straightening the hip). You feel the flexing action of the hamstrings when you pull the cycle pedal upwards from the bottom to the top of your stroke. Experienced cyclists know that this pulling action increases cycling efficiency, cadence, and power. When out of the saddle, the actions of the glutes are primary; however, the top portion of the hamstring also contributes to the extension of the hip, particularly in standing runs. These demands on the hamstrings, make mobility of this muscle group particularly important for cyclists.
Cyclists without sufficient mobility of the hamstrings may avoid fully engaging the glutes during climbs, reducing their power and efficiency. Additionally, limited flexibility of the hamstrings leads to over flexing (i.e. rounding) the spine during seated work, resulting in a major cause of back pain among cyclists. Here are the three major cycling hamstring mobility issues, and how you can address them during your recovery routines. All stretches for the hamstrings in this article are done lying on the floor using a yoga strap to allow the spine to remain in a healthy neutral position.
Best Hamstring Stretches
Mobility Issue 1, Tight Upper Hamstrings:
In seated positions, moving the arms forward and coming into aero positions requires creating an anterior tilt of the pelvis (tipping the top of the hips forward). If upper hamstrings are tight, this forward movement of the pelvis will be limited. Most cyclists will compensate for this by rounding the spine, which results in stress on the spinal disks when held for extended periods of time. Addressing this imbalance requires targeted stretching of the upper area of the hamstring.
Fix 1: Lying on your back, place a yoga strap across the arch or ball of your right foot. With your leg extended directly in front of your right hip, begin to pull the leg in using both sides of the strap directly towards your right shoulder. Bend your knee slightly to increase the sensation towards the top of your hamstring and decrease sensation behind your knee. Hold this stretch for one minute or more and repeat on the other side. If you feel a sharp sensation at the top of your hamstring (on your sit bone), start with Fix 2 given below.
Mobility Issue 2, Overactive Lower Hamstrings:
Cyclists with good upper hamstring flexibility, may still experience hyperactivity in the lower portion of the hamstring (behind the knee). These hamstring issues are harder to spot as your hamstring mobility looks healthy and you can probably come into a forward, low position easily. In cycling, this extreme flexibility of the upper hamstring, combines with the tension of the lower hamstring (as described in the actions of the hamstring above) to result in a particular vulnerability that causes pain at the upper insertion of the hamstring on the ischial tuberosity (the sit bone). You’ll know you’re in this group if you feel pain in at your sit bone(s)… possibly after cycling workouts, but also after driving, or being seated in an office chair. Extreme cases of this may also manifest as pain behind the knee as a result of inflammation that occurs from the pull of hamstrings in this area. Addressing this imbalance requires targeted stretching of the lower area of the hamstring, rather than the upper.
Fix 2: Lying on your back, place a yoga strap across the arch or ball of your right foot. Straighten your leg directly in front of your right hip. Keep your leg completely straight and begin to gently pull the leg in using both sides of the strap directly towards your right shoulder. Do not bend your leg. Continue to gently pull the leg in until you feel a gentle pull behind the knee. Remain for one minute or more and repeat on the other leg.
Mobility Issue 3, Inner and Outer Hamstrings:
The hamstring is actually a group of three muscle segments on the inner, center, and outer thigh. Any one of these segments can be comparatively tight and impact the alignment of the knee on the bike. A healthy cycling position involves tracking the knee directly over the center of the foot. If your seat is adjusted correctly and you’re still caving your knees inwards or bowing them out, you may fall into this third category of cyclist, creating excessive stress on both the knee and the low back. Riding with this deviated position of the knee, will increase these imbalances over time, as well as strain the knees and low back. Targeted stretching of the inner and particularly the outer segments of the hamstrings is important to maintaining alignment of the knees and hips while cycling.
Fix 3: You can choose to focus on just the inner or outer hamstrings versus completing this entire stretch.
Inner hamstring (your knees cave in): Set up as above. Holding the strap in your right hand, move your leg out to the side towards the floor until you feel a stretch through your inner thigh. Keep both hips on the floor and your leg as straight as possible.
Outer hamstring (your legs bow out): Set up as above. Now put the straps into your left hand and keep both hips on the ground while moving the stretch across your body, towards your left shoulder. You will feel a stretch on the outside of your thigh. If you feel the stretch through the ankle and calf, you may have to bend the knee to get the stretch into the hamstring and can do this stretch both with a straight leg and a slightly bent leg.
Complete these targeted stretches for the before or after cycling workouts two or more times each week for increased performance and comfort. Try completing the entire series as an evening stress reliever before bed to release the pull of the hamstrings on the low back for a better night’s sleep. As shown in this video, playing with the Golgi tendon reflex by activating the quads for a deeper hamstring stretch is one way to take your hamstring therapy a little deeper.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.