Strength & Conditioning for Cyclists

Life is busy and fitting in the training can be hard enough, then coach advices you to add in some off the bike conditioning exercises too. There is good reason for this. As more miles are put in along with more intense training sessions and being in that forward flexed cycling position for hours on end, the body needs to be conditioned to cope effectively with this and to help prevent aches and pains developing.

Conditioning exercises may also help to address any asymmetric, which most us will have, such as being stronger on one side, and/or more stable on the other. Perhaps an  old injury is impacting on flexibility and comfort. Sciatic and lower back issues can often cause reduced flexibility down one side which can be compensated for when bent forward by a pelvic shift to one side slightly.

Having good flexibility means being able to comfortably maintain an efficient cycling position for the duration, along with having good core strength. You don’t have to spend hours on stretches/strength exercises. 10-15 minutes sessions of stretches regularly in the week will make a positive difference.

NB: stretching isn’t about making you hurt. A stretch should be good feeling, not one of pain. Stretches - dynamic stretching (lengthening the muscle with movement) can be more effective than simply holding the muscle in a static position. come into the stretch slowly and repeat the movements 6-10x. There is no magic number of how many times which works best. I feel like I have had a good stretch after around 8x, everyone will be different.

Below are some stretches and exercises which I find work well. There are a huge number of variations and other exercises of course. Pick and choose some which work well for you.

Start from the lower leg and work upwards.

The calves: often neglected when time crunched, but they are an integral part of the lower limb mechanics too! Try doing both at the same time as we often have one which is tighter than the other and this helps to focus on that tighter side. With both feet pointing forwards, gradually lean into a wall to the point of a strong stretch, keeping heels on the floor and straight back. To alter the stretch, tighten your bottom muscles before coming into the movement.

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Quadriceps/hip flexors: particularly good too if driving a lot or have a desk based job, i.e. spending a lot of time in a forward flexed posture.

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Kneel on something soft (for knee comfort!). If you on the inflexible side, start with being up on your toes with the back foot (the higher the back foot is the stronger the stretch). Reaching up tall with the arms creates a more effective stretch for the hip flexors and the front (anterior) of the upper body.

Bring the hip forward slowly arching the back a little until a good stretch is felt in the quadriceps, hold for around 5 seconds, sit back until the stretch releases and repeat this movement. To make this more effective: Tighten your bottom muscles first (gluteal maximus), then come into the stretch and repeat as above. How far can you now get with those glutes engaged? This demonstrates the direct relationship between the anterior and posterior muscle groups.

Adding in rotation will lengthen though the outside (lateral) muscles more. Lower the arms a little whilst in the stretch position, then rotate away from the leg being stretched.

The lunge version: This is easier to do anywhere! Start by taking a good step (lunge) forward. Keep BOTH feet pointing forwards, (good for the balance too!) stretch up again with the arms whilst gradually dropping the back knee slowly towards the floor (yes, raise the heel on the back foot) and arching the back slightly, to the point of a strong stretch in the quadriceps of the back leg. Hold for around 5 seconds, come up off the stretch (you don’t have to stand fully up) and repeat. The knee should get closer to the floor with each drop. Whilst in the stretched position, bring the arms all the way down and you should feel the stretch come off the abdominal area. So keep those arms up,  to really lengthen through the hip flexors and the anterior body!  

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Adductors (the inside thigh muscles, long and short): often get ignored too! The recommendation is usually to stretch the outside of the legs as this is where we often feel the soreness, but the adductors get tight too, generating a inward pulling force on the knee. For the short adductors, sit tall with the soles of the feet together and lower the knees by gently pushing down on them with your elbows and lean forward if you can. The 2nd position hits the long adductor muscles. Point 1 foot in the direction of movement and lean over to the that side to stretch the inside of the opposite leg.

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The hamstrings: place your foot up something at an appropriate height for you. Be a little wary with this one though as to what structures are actually being stretched. Tension on the sciatic nerve is often mistaken for a muscular stretch.  If the stretch is felt at the back of the knee, then the nerve is being put under tension, not what we want! To make sure that that the muscle is being stretched, start by pointing your foot away from you. (keeping the feet towards you tensions the neural tissue). Bend forward from the HIP, keeping the back straight, this may mean that you won’t get as far as you think! Repeat as for the other stretches. Bias can also be placed on either the inside (medial) or outside (lateral) hamstrings by rotating the foot. Rotate outwards to bias the inside group and vice versa for the outside. Give this a try, you may find one side tighter than the other.

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Gluteal maximus (bottom muscle):  Lying on your back, keep one leg straight and bring the other leg to a 90 degree bend at the pelvis and knee. Pull the knee towards your chest a little, then push the leg across your body. Take hold of the top of your shin (if you can’t reach without lifting your body, use a belt or an inner tube) and rotate the leg, bringing the knee towards the opposite shoulder. You should feel a good stretch deep in your bottom.

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Piriformis: These are a couple of options. The first one starts as above, but keep the pelvis and knee position at 90 degrees. Push the knee a little further across your body this time. Using a belt or inner tube, wrap it around your foot and rotate the leg, trying to keep the pelvis on the floor. You should feel a good stretch at the side of the pelvis this time

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This alternative brings in upper trunk rotation. Sitting as tall as possible, place one foot on the opposite side of the opposing knee. Bring the elbow across to the opposing bent knee. Bring the bent across the body and rotate. The more you push back on the knee with the elbow the greater the stretch through the piriformis.

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For some base strength exercises, these are good ones to start with;

If you are starting out doing strength work, for the first 2-3 weeks I would suggest 2x per week, doing 3 sets of moderate effort completing as many repetitions as you can comfortably when using body weight or around 15 repetitions if using weights. This is to allow the body to adapt to the new demands placed upon it. Too much, too hard, too soon may lead to injury! Of course, everyone is different and only you can be the judge of what you can and can’t do. After this adaptation period, use greater loads to continue the process of getting stronger and drop the repetitions to 8-12.

Gluteal maximus: To get those glutes fired up, single leg bridging is a great exercise, and it also works pelvic stability. To warm up, do this as a double leg exercise first for 10-15 repetitions. Having the arms beside you will make it easier. As strength gains are made, work up to just having the upper arm on the floor, then to crossing your arms across your chest so that stability is entirely controlled from the pelvis. When going into the bridge position, concentrate on using the gluteals to push upwards. Don’t hyper extend the pelvis though, come up just to the point of being level. Hold for around 5 seconds, then slowly come back down, controlling the movement.

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Squats/dead lifts - double leg: great for overall strength. Purchase a heavy resistance band such as one of these; Put your legs together and tie the band around the knees fairly tightly so that when you take the feet pelvic width apart there should be a reasonably strong inward pull on the the knees. Getting form correct with this exercise is important. Think bottom out and long through your back. You should feel the effort mostly in the bottom muscles, as well as the quadriceps.

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The band is there to keep knees over the feet and help to effectively engage the lateral part of the glutes, by keeping tension on the band as you go up AND down. Using some weight (even when starting out) makes this exercise more effective, especially as a cyclist where the legs will be strong anyway. If you don’t have any weights, put heavy items in a backpack for example.

Start with the feet pointing forwards, pelvic width apart. As you squat down, keep knees over your feet pushing against the tension of the band. Heels should stay firmly on the floor.  Squat down slowly and controlled, i.e. don’t drop quickly, then power back up.

If you are restricted in this movement, or there is too much stress on your knees, try it using a gym ball behind your back. Same start position. Use the gym ball for support, pushing back into the ball going down and up, but still making sure that the majority of the work is being done by those bottom muscles. Hold some weights in your hands and have the band between the knees as above.  

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Depending on ability to squat all the way down, this could be turned into a full range movement exercise, the dead lift. Starting with a light weight (dumbbells in each hand for example) and still using the band, squat down until the weights touch the ground, then back up.

Gluteal minimus/medius (muscles on the side of the pelvis which also attach directly into the ITB): One side is often weaker than the other. Lying on your side, keep the natural curve at the waist (hold the pelvis in this position or use a rolled up towel under the waist) to maintain proper pelvic position. Cross your arms so that you aren't pushing into the floor as you want the stability to come from the pelvis. Extending the top leg out, raise it to a comfortable point then slowly and controlled come back down, Tap your toes lightly on the floor then back up. Repeat as many times as able. You should feel the effort along the top of the leg near the pelvis.

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