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Unhinder your hamstrings for cycling

Stretch the muscles at the back of your leg and improve your performance on the bike

by Andrew Randell and Steve Neal

Modern life is actually working against our cycling performance. We sit at our desks all day at computers, and then we sit to drive our cars. All that time sitting puts our bodies in a flexed position, which shortens some of the muscles that are important for cycling. In fact, riding our bikes contributes to this muscle shortening as well.

Adequate hamstring mobility has a direct effect on your cycling performance. The quadriceps and hamstrings are antagonistic muscles: when the one fires the other shuts off. Think of kicking a ball. As the leg is swinging toward the limit of its range of motion, the hamstrings fire, shutting off the quadriceps to ensure that your leg doesn’t go beyond its range. A limited range of motion means a shorter, weaker kick. A similar scenario plays out on the bike. When your hamstrings lack range of motion, they turn on during the pedal stroke, shutting off the quadriceps and hindering the power you can produce.

The following hamstring stretch can make a real change in your body. At The Cycling Gym, we have seen clients change their hamstring mobility within a single session. They also make significant changes after a month of regular stretching, such as raising their saddles and delivering a stronger pedal stroke.

Leg lowers

To do this stretch, you will need something to wrap around your foot, such as a towel, band or long belt.

Start by lying on your back with your legs stretched out with your feet together and perpendicular to the floor. You should be pulling the toes toward the shins, an important feature of this exercise.

Place the towel around the ball of your right foot. Raise your right leg, keeping it straight, using the towel to do most of the work. Stop when you feel a stretch that is a four out of 10 in intensity, the sensation of a light stretch.

Using the towel to hold the right leg in place, raise your left leg until it is beside your right. This is your top position. Next, lower the left leg slowly. It’s important to go slowly. You will feel the stretch in your right hamstring as the left leg reaches the floor. Once the left leg is all the way down, raise it again smoothly to the top position. Repeat 10 times, then switch the towel to the left leg to target the left hamstring. If you find the stretch dissipating throughout the 10 leg lowers, try slowing the speed at which you lower your leg or increasing the stretch in the raised leg.

It’s key that the movement of the leg you are lowering is slow and controlled, that you keep both legs straight and that you keep your feet perpendicular to the ground, not rolling out to the side.

Do this stretch regularly and you will see real changes in your hamstring mobility. As your range of motion increases, you may even find that your saddle height starts feeling a little low.

How to check the range of motion of your hamstrings

Lie on your back with your legs extended, your feet both pointing at the ceiling. Pull your toes toward your shin. Keeping the left leg on the floor, raise the right one slowly. Take note of when your left foot starts to turn outward toward the floor. The change is subtle so you might need someone touching your left foot lightly to catch the movement. Also note when you start to feel a pull in the hamstring of the right leg. Ideally, you want your whole right leg, and your left foot, straight and perpendicular to the floor, indicating a 90–degree range of motion in your hamstring. If you don’t have this range, start stretching both your legs using the leg lowers exercise.