Did you know that your cycling fitness, comfort, and enjoyment can be dramatically improved by what you do off your bike?
The athletes I work with are sometimes surprised to learn that effective coaching programs cover much more than what they do in the saddle. Your structural (bones & muscle) as well as aerobic fitness, along with the fit of your bike to your body, are key aspects of cycling performance success.
Here are 7 straightforward steps you can take to make your ride even better, as you make them part of your regular routine. For each of these recommendations, if you would like more detailed information, contact me by email and I can share some good online references or other recommendations suited to your needs.
1. Foam Rolling: This is first for a reason, as this amazing activity can be done whether you are warmed up or not. I do foam rolling before my rides and this always helps me to feel better when pedaling. It’s a simple activity with only one piece of equipment: a foam roller about 8 inches in diameter and 2-3 feet long. There are different levels of foam “hardness” that are color-coded. For newer “rollers” get a blue roller, for more advanced “rollers” get a black roller. Then put the roller on the floor and roll all four sides of your upper legs (IT bands, quads, hamstrings, adductors) and your calves using your body weight to press down. Rolling is like getting a deep tissue massage by somebody with extremely large hands; you will be able to affect large muscle groups. By “resting” on sore areas before you continue to roll, you will get the knots out of your muscles… and trust me, they are there! Rolling is extremely helpful in developing supple muscles. Supple muscles allow you to pedal smoothly and avoid injury.
2. Flexibility: I encourage a comprehensive flexibility program as part of all cyclists’ daily routine. Since muscle fibers can be torn if you stretch before warming up, I recommend riding easy for 15-30 minutes, and then once a sweat is going, get off the bike for about 5 minutes of stretching. At this point, do basic stretches focusing on hamstrings, quads and Achilles/calves. The key point is, stretch initially when warmed up, then get back to your bike ride. Post-ride, as time permits, a more extended stretching session focusing on the hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors can be extremely beneficial.
3. Core Strengthening: Strong core muscles allow the other muscles used in cycling to do their job, and not have to take up the slack for weaker core muscles (the muscles in your abdomen, pelvis, lower back, and hips). When riding, a solid core both provides a platform from which your leg muscles can perform at their peak, and it also protects your back from undue strain due to being bent over in cycling position. Cyclists with solid cores and good flexibility have the flattest, most aerodynamic backs when in the aero position.
4. Massage (done by experienced sports or deep-tissue massage therapist): In addition to the tired muscles from everyday riding, many physical forces over time make us asymmetric, which can cause injury and discomfort when we are placed on a symmetrical machine like the bicycle. These issues can be alleviated by regular sports and/or deep tissue massage. Massage helps to keep our muscles supple and aid in recovery, allowing you to do harder workouts that improve your fitness. Licensed, knowledgeable massage therapists can work with you to bring appropriate therapies to specific areas of focus or concern. Pro cyclists have soigneurs on the cycling team who make massage part of their ongoing program; it’s a smart practice for you to also incorporate in yours.
5. Body Alignment (done by physical therapist or a chiropractor): If massage, stretching, rolling and core strengthening is insufficiently helping you with flexibility and symmetry, then it is time to let a professional help to actively align your body. If you have persistent aches, or an actual injury from riding, this will help you to return to comfort and efficiency on the bike. This may take several sessions and require you to do some specific follow-up exercises on your part (i.e., specific muscle strengthening or flexibility).
6. Bike Fit: One of the most important non-riding activities you can do is to get a professional bike fit. Bike fitting is similar to what a tailor does to an “off-the-rack” piece of clothing, as he or she makes it fit you precisely. Unlike wearing clothes, however, bike riding is the most repetitive-motion sport of which I am aware: problems in your bike fit can, over the course of hundreds of thousands of pedal strokes, lead to discomfort and injury. A good bike fit can prevent these problems from occurring (or help to solve them if they have already happened) and will help you be more efficient on the bike. As your body changes over time, consider getting the bike fit updated, especially if you are experiencing any discomfort. Changes in our posture on the bike, cycling technique, weight, and of course any changes in bike components (saddle, shoes, bars) may be prompts to have a bike fit updated, to ensure that you are optimally positioned on your machine for performance, comfort, and safety.
7. Nutrition: We know that how we fuel our bodies, day in and day out, has a big effect how we feel and perform on the bike. I will cover this topic in a specific post in the near future, but wanted to mention it in this context of off-bike means of improving your time on the bike.
With these seven suggestions, all done when you are not on a bike ride, you will find that your cycling improves and your overall enjoyment of your time on the bike increases. Knowing how much fun you’re already having, can you imagine feeling even BETTER when you ride?