As you spend more time in the saddle, especially if you're new to cycling, you may find twinges, aches and pains begin to crop up and slow you down. One of the most common problems that cyclists suffer with is hamstring issues. Cycling puts a lot of stress and strain on this muscle group, but here's how you can loosen them up and prevent further injury.
What are hamstrings?
Words by Jo Mcrae
Running down the back of your leg from your hips and crossing behind the knee joint, the hamstrings are a group of muscles that extend the hip and flex the knee.
In a nutshell, they are one of the main muscle groups that are active as we cycle, with the upper portion of the hamstrings playing a role in the down stroke or ‘push’ phase of pedalling, and the lower part being active in the up stroke or ‘pull’ phase as we bend our knee.
Though the two ends of the muscles are connected and work as a whole, the cycling position and action means that it’s helpful to think of each end when trying to take care of these important muscles.
As we bend forwards on the saddle to reach the bars, cycling affects your hamstrings in the following ways;
- The upper hamstrings at your hips are stretched, so can become relatively ‘loose’ and weak.
- The lower hamstrings at the knee, remain bent. This can lead to a tendency for the lower portion to become shortened and tight
- Overall, this imbalance between the ‘tone’ in the two ends of the muscle can lead to problems and stress and strain.
Cycling Affects your Hamstrings: Hamstring strain
A hamstring ‘strain’ occurs when the muscle is loaded either quite heavily, or repetitively, or both.
In the cycling sense, this might mean pushing too heavy a gear or too low a cadence, or simply increasing the amount of cycling (by way of repetition) too much, too soon for your muscles to adapt. Technically, a strain is micro-damage in the muscle fibers due to being overstretched, and this is more likely to occur if the two ‘ends’ of your hamstrings are out of balance with each other.
Hamstring Recovery: R.I.C.E
Resting the strained muscle is the first step to try to resolve the problem, though this can be pretty difficult if you are cyclist because even low level cycling (or perhaps even walking) may aggravate the injury and cause more pain.
The typical ‘R.I.C.E’ protocol of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation apply as acute self-help for any soft tissue injury. In practice though, it can be difficult to avoid aggravating a significant strain and some sort of treatment will be beneficial if the injury isn’t beginning to improve within a couple of days.
Sports/remedial massage can help stretch out the muscle fibres in a more localised and focussed way, and break down any scar tissue so you can at least get back to gentle cycling as soon as possible.
To help loosen up your hamstrings, and prevent further injury from cycling, there are a number of stretches you can do at home. Foam rollers and mini-bands are also effective in both the conditioning and recovery process, and a worthwhile investment.
Here's a hamstring stretch to get started with:
- Start with your feet hip width apart and parallel
- Bend your knees, draw the belly button in, and roll down through the spine
- Put all 10 finger tips on the floor in front of your toes
- Keep your fingers on the floor, and your heels on the floor
- Gently try to straighten the legs to a point that’s comfortable, breathe, and then bend them again
- Repeat this 5-6 times
- If you can straighten your legs fully, don’t let your knees ‘lock out’, keep them soft. If you can’t straighten them, don’t push yourself to – you’ll become more flexible over time
- When you’re ready to come back, roll up one vertebra at a time, straightening the legs last.
While it's important to keep your hamstrings supple, and not to over strain them on the bike, it's equally important to ensure your bike set-up is right for you. A bike fit can reveal some pretty interesting things that you may never have known about your body.
If you have tight hamstrings - like I do - then you'll need to lower your saddle height enough to take out any hesitation in the leg on the down-stroke, and also prevent over exertion of that muscle group.
If you take care of your body, your body will take care of cycling.
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