With the warmer weather, I’ve been more active outside and have been clocking a lot more miles on my bicycle. And gauging by all the bikes I’ve been seeing on the roads, a lot of you have been doing the same.
With more riding comes tighter leg muscles, especially the quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings and hip rotators. As these muscles tighten, they act like shrink wrap on the lower back, pulling at the spine and pelvis, and this tightness can result in low back tension.
The kicker here is that as the lower body gets tighter, it can become difficult to stretch the muscles effectively. I’ve met lots of cyclists on the tighter, less flexible end of the spectrum with low back pain who have been doing stretches that center sensation in the low back. This makes sense on one hand, in that since the back has been feeling tight, it should follow that it needs stretching. Yet they continue to suffer back pain.
That’s because they are often missing the cause of the pain; especially for stronger, less flexible athletes, it’s caused by tightness in the muscles of the pelvis and legs. If stretching doesn’t center in the hips and thighs, and if stretches are felt primarily in the low back, they are likely further tightening those muscles, and will get very little in the way of long term relief.
This of it this way: when your low back is healthy and feeling good, you just don’t notice it throughout your day. It’s when your back is getting your attention, whether it’s aching when you’re on your feet, or gripping during a bike ride, that you know there’s a misalignment. If this is you, be sure that when you’re stretching, you move sensation away from your low back and into the muscles of your legs and pelvis to free up your back.
The best time to stretch is after your cardio workout, while your body is warm Below is my essential stretching regimen for cyclists, and in this video I show specifically how to modify the stretches for tighter bodies.
- Hamstrings: Open the backs of your thighs in a forward fold. If you can’t touch the ground when you fold forward with your feet parallel and hip-width, it’s important to widen your stance and bend your knees generously. This is the pose most likely to strain the low back for less flexible practitioners if not aligned safely. Work it by bending your knees and lengthening your spine, creating a backbend action in your low back until you center the stretch sensation more in the middle back of the thighs, in the belly of the hamstrings.
- Quadriceps: For tighter quads, I like the old gym class thigh stretch of simply standing hear a wall for balance, and pulling your foot in towards your hip. Keep your thighs and knees parallel and hip-width.
Hip Flexors. I have a lot to say about the psoas–the main hip flexor–and why it gets so tight for most of us (you can read more here).
- Hip Rotators: A figure 4 hip stretch is a very accessible way to open tight outer hips (piriformis, obturator, and the other rotators). As you get more flexible, you can progress to yoga poses like agni stambhasana (fire log pose) and gomukhasana (cow face pose). In the video, I show how to work with tighter hips safely and effectively in these seated shapes.
- Muscles of the IT Band. There’s a lot to say about tightness in the connective tissue of the IT Band and the muscles it connects. My favorite pose for this is parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose), but tighter students need to work it with the knees bent
Keep cycling, keep stretching, and let me know how it goes!
This article was originally written for Philly.com by Justicia DeClue.
Justicia (E-RYT 500) has been teaching since 2005 and is the owner and director of Maha Yoga in Philadelphia. She is most sought after for her detailed alignment instruction and open-hearted teaching style. She is teaching alignment-oriented workshops at Maha Yoga, and hope you can join her in April. She really loves Instagram, and can also be found on Facebook.