Every keen cyclist knows that they should commit some time to recovery work after a long ride, but it’s fair to say that most skimp in this area. It’s understandable – after a few hours in the saddle, taking another 15-30 minutes to stretch and foam roll your aching muscles feels like a big commitment when you could be lounging on the sofa instead.
However, your muscles really won’t thank you for skipping recovery work and you’re liable to feel twice as tight the next day, as well as putting yourself at greater risk of injury if you’re following something like our 100-mile cycle training plan. We spoke to Phil Burt, former head physiotherapist at British Cycling, about the importance of stretching and other recovery work, and asked him for a simple routine to do after your long rides.
Why is it important to stretch after a ride?
“You’ve got tight muscles, and as you try and move them towards their full length you either meet resistance or pain. That’s why we stretch – so we have more muscle length available to us that’s restriction-free. That’s especially true after a long ride, because it’s a forced postural position set by the parameters of your bike set-up.”
How long should you spend on your recovery work?
“Everybody is time-poor – even athletes. I remember Bradley Wiggins coming up to me once in 2007 or so. He’d been assessed by a California outfit and they gave him 26 different exercise and stretches to do each day. He said, ‘I did these yesterday and I didn’t have any time to ride my bike.’ Every one of those stretches was valid, but what I preach is golden bullet exercises, where you’re stretching different things at the same time.
“Do the exercises [recommended below] three to five times, for 30 to 60 seconds. If you get to 60 seconds you know you’re getting a good stretch, but you might find that too hard to do at first, so do it for 30 seconds and build up to a minute, knowing you’re doing it well.”
When should you stretch?
“I don’t think anyone needs to do it before a ride – unless they have specific reasons to, like an injury or restriction – but after the ride it’s very important. Nutrition is key in the first hour, so sort that, shower and clean yourself up, then ideally do the stretches straight after you’ve showered, when you’re still warm. Do it then and again later on that evening if you want to.”
Post-Ride Recovery Routine
You’ll need a trigger point massage ball and a foam roller for this routine. If you don’t have a foam roller, browse our picks of the best foam rollers and buy one.
Burt has designed to target all of the areas of the body most likely to be stiff after a long cycle. As mentioned, do each stretch for between 30 and 60 seconds, three to five times, then move on to the next stretch.
Rectus femoris, hip flexors and lower back
“The rectus femoris is the middle quad muscle and it’s really important in cycling. If that gets tight then it glues down your hip and your kneecap, and it can be the muscle responsible for kneecap pain when cycling. You don’t use the hip flexors in cycling unless it’s an all-out sprint, but they are important because they connect to your lumbar spine. So when you stand up they pull your back into an extended and maybe painful position.
“You can stretch your rectus femoris and hip flexors with a modified Bulgarian stretch. Stand on one leg with the other behind you on a chair. Squeeze your glutes as tight as you can and push through your hips, and then squat down on the standing leg.
“For people who have very poor flexibility through the pelvis and lower back, the modified Bulgarian means your pelvis can move where it wants to and it decreases the load on your lumbar spine. If I asked you to touch the floor now and I blocked your pelvis you’d have to do it all through your lumbar spine, so you’d feel more of stretch there and maybe some pain. It’s the same on a bike – you want your hips, pelvis and lower back sharing the workload.”
“Glute stretches are great but I suggest using a trigger-point ball on your glutes. Get the ball up against a wall and lean right into it around your glutes. It’s really easy to get a good release on your glutes. You’ll feel great afterwards!”
Iliotibial band (ITB)
“Cyclists’ ITBs can get very tight because of the forces the knee has to deal with from pedalling, and this can be a major cause of knee pain. Foam roll the ITB [which runs down the outside of the thigh], because it’s very hard to stretch. All I can say to you is that whatever the foam roller actually does, and there is controversy about the mechanism, it works! It’s eye-wateringly painful, but if you do it every day for two weeks, three minutes each side, it stops hurting. Vibrating foam rollers are really good for this, because they make it less painful.”
“When cycling, the thoracic spine [the upper part of the spine] is in a similar position to when you’re looking at the ceiling when you’re painting it. Foam rolling the thoracic spine will pay big dividends in your neck and decrease the workload for your lumbar spine. Often people don’t feel like the thoracic spine is painful, but foam rolling that area can help with problems in your neck and lower back.”
“Problems arise here because you’re holding the handlebars for ages. The lats come all the way from your neck down to the bottom of your spine. They’re a big stabilising muscle. Put a trigger-point ball against your armpit to roll them, either lying on your side or against a wall. This can really help your thoracic spine to move, and therefore your lumbar spine and neck. Again it’s a muscle that itself isn’t painful but if restricted will cause aches, pains and restrictions elsewhere.”
Phil Burt, former head physiotherapist at British Cycling, has launched Phil Burt Innovation, offering a range of services including cycling-specific injury assessment, treatment and bike fitting. For more information visit philburtinnovation.co.uk
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.