With the warmer weather, I've been more active outside and have been clocking a lot more miles on my bicycle. And gauging by all the bikes I've been seeing on the roads, a lot of you have been doing the same.
With more riding comes tighter leg muscles, especially the quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings and hip rotators. As these muscles tighten, they act like shrink wrap on the lower back, pulling at the spine and pelvis, and this tightness can result in low back tension.
The kicker here is that as the lower body gets tighter, it can become difficult to stretch the muscles effectively. I've met lots of cyclists who do stretches that focus on the low back yet they continue to suffer back pain.
That's because they are often missing the cause of the pain; especially for stronger, less flexible athletes, it's caused by tightness in the muscles of the pelvis and legs. If stretching doesn't center in the hips and thighs, and if stretches are felt primarily in the low back, they are likely further tightening those muscles, and will get very little in the way of long-term relief.
The best time to stretch is after a cardio workout, while your body is warm. Below is my essential stretching regimen for cyclists, and a video on how to modify the stretches for tighter bodies.
Hamstrings: Open the backs of your thighs with a forward fold. With your feet parallel and hip-width apart, bend at the waist folding your upper body towards the floor. This is the pose most likely to strain the low back for less flexible people if not aligned safely. If you can't touch the ground, it's important to widen your stance and bend your knees generously.
Quadriceps: For tighter quads, I like the old gym class thigh stretch of simply standing near a wall for balance and pulling your foot in towards your hip. Keep your thighs and knees parallel and hip-width apart.
Hip Flexors: Try bridge pose. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, then lift your hips off the floor until you feel the stretch. You can learn more about combating tight hips here.
Hip Rotators: A figure-4 stretch is a very accessible way to open tight outer hips. Start on your back and cross your right leg over your left thigh, so your ankle rests above the knee. Lace your hands around your left thigh and gently pull the leg towards your chest. As you get more flexible, you can progress to yoga poses like fire log pose and cow face pose. In the video, I show how to work with tighter hips safely and effectively in these seated shapes.
Muscles of the IT band: My favorite pose for this is revolved triangle pose. Less flexible people should begin with the knees bent. Learn more about the causes of IT band pain here.
Keep cycling, but most importantly, keep stretching!