Six Stretches for Cyclists to Improve Hip & Thoracic Spine Mobility
Overuse injuries in cycling often present with a more gradual onset than higher impact sports. As I tend to be superstitious about certain things, we will not be discussing when cycling becomes (ahem) high impact. I thank you all for riding safe and increasing awareness so we can enjoy this great sport for a lifetime.
Inconspicuous pain, tightness and discomfort at the start or end of a ride can be easily ignored and managed by subtle compensations. In time, however, biomechanic inefficiencies reveal themselves and impact not only cycling, but also functional activities in daily life.
Rare is a person with low back pain that feels uncomfortable only when riding a bike.
The most common sites of pain in cyclists that we see at Finish Line PT are low backs, hips, knees and necks. While not always a major source of pain, a limitation in hip mobility is often the underlying cause of cycling injuries. After all, the hips are the driving force when riding, so discrepancies between right and left hips can lead to problems elsewhere in the body and put excess stress on neighboring joints of the knees and low back.
In addition, a stiff thoracic spine—the large section of the spine from the base of the ribcage to the tops of the shoulder blades—can result in discomfort in the shoulders and neck when riding.
The following mobility exercises and stretches can help prevent injury and keep you healthy this season. Chances are that you’re riding very early in the morning or later in the day after work, and you have not been moving much prior to the ride.
Unless you sleep walk and perform hip flexor stretching in the middle of the night, I’d recommend performing at least 2-3 of the following mobility exercises before hopping on the bike. Put down the phone and/or computer and do your joints and soft tissues a favor with a 10-minute mobility session while drinking a cup of coffee (if well hydrated) or water (if not) before your ride.
In general, you want to focus on hips and thoracic spine; picking one exercise from each category is a quick and easy way to warm up before you hop in the saddle.
The stretches are all dynamic, not static, as you need to prepare your body for movement. As such, stretching should be mobile, moving in and out of the stretch to hydrate tissues and improve joint mobility.
- Hip Flexor and Quad Stretching: In a kneeling lunge position, reach up and overhead as you move your hips forward and back 10 times. If there’s one thing you can do daily, this is it! VIDEO
- Offset Child’s Pose: On all fours, with your right knee ahead of your left, move your hips back to your heels 10 times. Repeat to the other side. VIDEO
- Deep Squat: This can be difficult, but in time will improve. You might need to support yourself by holding onto something as you drop down into a squat, butt towards the ground. Once in position, take 5 deep breaths expanding the ribcage and low back.
- Posterior Lunges: Step back with your right leg, keeping the left forward. Repeat to the other side. VIDEO
Thoracic Spine Mobility:
- Doorway Stretch: Put your forearms in a doorway, lean into the stretch to open up chest while tucking chin. VIDEO
- T-Spine Mobility: On all fours, lean back into child’s pose while straightening your right arm forward. Take your left hand and move it to the right, under your chest. Repeat to the other side. VIDEO
A Few Other Things To Remember:
- Form: At the start of the ride, think tall spine, relaxed shoulders. Keeping yours eyes on the road (obviously), draw your chin back as if making a double chin. Maintain a nice high cadence and smooth pedal stroke, knowing that at some point you’ll probably go down into your drops or aero bars for harder race efforts. I find initiating the ride with good form carries over to times when you have to hammer in a more flexed position.
- Foam Rolling: Most of us have a love/hate relationship with the foam roller. Trust me. It will help. Focus on the quads and thoracic spine to loosen up muscles before the ride and for recovery after.
- Strength Training: After your weekend long rides, if you have time, I recommend doing some squats, lunges and planks. A quick strength session, 20-30 minutes, can help improve power at the end of a ride when it’s most important. I find that it equalizes mobility in the joints and tissues as we tend to favor a stronger, less fatigued side of the body as the hours in the saddle go on. Your body will thank you the next morning.
Andrew Fenack is a physical therapist at Finish Line Physical Therapy. While in PT school, he coached cyclists and triathletes on the Computrainer system at Tailwind Endurance. A runner in high school, Andy has completed 2 Ironman triathlons, 2 marathons, 10 Half Ironman/70.3 races, and numerous other races at every distance. Read his complete bio.