The Missing Spoke: Athleticism
Don’t get me wrong – cycling is a fantastic form of exercise. Riding a bike is scalable and tailorable to different ages, abilities, interests, and levels of fitness. Whether your goals are competitive, recreational, or rehabilitative, benefits include heightened aerobic and/or anaerobic capacity, improved balance, and specific strength gains.
Some cyclists spend hours and hours on their bikes, and many start to develop functional imbalances and postural abnormalities. These can result in pain or injury, and negatively impact cycling performance. However, as determined athletes, most cyclists don’t want to stop riding, even if their bodies are suffering.
How can we fight this battle? I believe the answer is a return to ATHLETICISM. Get off the bike, continue to be active, but start targeting the basics of functional movement. Sort out your imbalances to make your time spent cycling more comfortable, more efficient, and your body more resilient.
Too much of a good thing…
First off, let’s look at some of the common issues associated with the specificity of prolonged cycling that are documented in the research, as well as those we see with many cyclists who come into our gym:
- Poor Thoracic Mobility is the most common limitation we see in cyclists of all levels. Cyclists with road bikes are especially affected, as the forward flexion required to reach the handlebars sometimes 10cm below seat height is extreme. This can cause kyphotic posture.
- Extreme Lumbar Flexion and Anterior Pelvic Tilt are sacrolumbar compensations that follow the rounded posture a cyclist gets while reaching for the handlebars. One of our hip flexors, the Psoas Major, is a dominant muscle during pedalling and originates on the sacrum, and its overuse further contributes to an anterior pelvic tilt. This particular sacrolumbar issue can lead to increased spinal stress and low back pain .
- Poor Hip Extension comes as a result of the quad-dominant nature of cycling. When you sit on your glutes, the same phenomena that affects a generation of office workers persists – cue back and knee pain. Use them or lose them!
- The Inability to “Own” Multiplanar Movement is often developed through cycling-specific training. Cycling is a purely sagittal movement (linear in the forward direction), and the physical design and support of a bike reinforces this . Core instability in the lateral and rotational planes impairs hip stability on the saddle with each stride of the pedal, potentially contributing to back and hip discomfort .
- Interestingly, the impact of cycling on Bone Density also appears in the research. Many middle-aged adults gravitate towards cycling as it is a low-impact activity for the joints. However, bone and soft tissue require loading to undergo structural changes – cycling does not offer an opportunity for this type of adaptation . Weight bearing and loaded movements are needed.
How ATHLETICISM can help
Many of the aforementioned challenges can be mitigated or overcome if a cyclist takes the time to train with well-rounded athleticism in mind. Cycling is great, but it can be BETTER. Functional strength training is a good place to start.
John Weirath (a physiotherapist and professional bike fitter from Denver, CO), like our team at it’s time! Fitness Results, supports the Turkish Get Up! He claims “its combination of movements represents a nearly perfect mobility sequence for cyclists” . Check out Sheila Hamilton’s Blog and our page on the Turkish Get Up Project Vancouver for more info. You’ll see that it naturally includes a corrective for each of issues outlined above.
There are plenty of other exercises that we can use to address the imbalances too. As a framework, you’ll want to include Myofascial Release, mobility drills targeting the thoracic spine and hip flexors, multiplanar core activation (ie. front planks, side planks, bird-dog exercises), and loaded hip dominant patterns (ie. bridges or moderate deadlifts). I’ve attached a sample of Warm Up and Maintenance Exercises for Cyclists at the end of this blog.
The most important thing is to get out and move beyond the constraints of the bike! A bike is a relatively static tool – your body is dynamic and adaptable, especially when you take care of it. Your spine, your muscles, and your existing aches and pains will thank you.
If the bike fits…
A good bike fit is critical if you plan to spend extensive time cycling. When purchasing a bike, make sure you get a good feel for it. If possible, strike a deal to use it on a trial basis for a few hours before finalizing the purchase.
If you’re serious about spending some time on your new wheels, take it to get custom fitted to the angles of your body. Details as small as pedal width and clip position affect how your knees track and things like proper handlebar width and angle can prevent numbness in hands and fingers.
Remember: Choose a bike based on your needs! Not everyone cycling around the city needs a racing bike with dropped handlebars. A bike that allows you to sit taller might be better for the “weekend” or “family” rider.
Bike maintenance is important for safety – no one should be out on the roads or the trails with unpredictable brakes or gears. Make sure you get a good tuneup every year.
Finally, know the rules of the road, and join a “New to Cycling” group if you’re unsure!
Warm Up and Maintenance Exercises for Cyclists
Standing tall with straight spine. Look up and down, side to side, and tilt your head ear-to-ear
Seated T-spine rotation
Sit tall with knees straight and butt squeezed tight. With arms crossed on chest turn your body, rotating from the waist up.
T-spine extension on bench
Let upper back between shoulder blades fall towards the ground without letting the lower back drop or sag.
Half Kneeling Hip Stretch
Support the knee on a foam or pillow and maintain a tall spine. Weight down onto bent knee and tighten butt muscle on the same side. Feel a stretch in the front of the hip and thigh.
Stand in front of a wall with feet staggered but both toes facing ahead. Ensure that your feet are in line with your hips. Begin with leading foot touching the wall. Gently rock forward so your knee touches the wall, tracking over the toes with either heel lifting.
Lie on your back with your core engaged, knees bent with feet hip width apart. Lift hips off the ground by squeezing your glutes (your bum!).
Written by Briana Kelly, Practicing Kinesiologist at it’s time! Fitness Results.
Click here to listen to Briana discuss this topic on the Jon McComb show. The Fitness Segment airs live every Thursday at 9:05 on CKNW 980 am.
 Streisfeld GM et. al. Relationship Between Body Positioning, Muscle Activity, and Spinal Kinematics in Cyclists With and Without Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27784817.
 Weirath J. Want to be a better cyclist? Get off the bike. https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/want-to-be-a-better-cyclist-get-off-the-bike.
 Kidd S. How to reduce lower back pain from cycling. https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/how-to-reduce-lower-back-pain-from-cycling.
 Muyor JM. and Zabala M. Road Cycling and Mountain Biking Produces Adaptations on the Spine and Hamstring Extensibility. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26509372.