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Why you need “longer” hamstrings for cycling

This article was written by our bikefitter and physiotherapist  Nicole Oh. Nicole has been riding and racing bikes for many years, and brings a wealth of experience to The Body Mechanic team. 

Before I delve into this topic, let me clear up something first… when I talk about hamstrings “length”, I’m not actually referring to their actual physical length.

Lengthen hamstringsMuscle fibres have a set length. Increases in movement about a joint is mainly due to a decrease in tightness or tone of the muscle. Stretching works by activating neuromuscular reflexes that decrease the tone of the muscle, making it more tolerant to stretch. 

Having tight hamstrings can contribute to restricted hip range of motion. Since the sport of cycling requires us to maintain a lean forward position for long periods of time and our hips to operate in flexion throughout, having limited hip range can influence all of the following:- 

  1. Low back pain (and associated leg pain)
  2. Hamstrings tendinopathy
  3. Knee pain
  4. Aerodynamics
  5. Power and performance

 So, if the threat of injury doesn’t convince you, perhaps the possibility of being faster will! 

 

Low back pain 

No joints like being loaded at end of range for sustained periods of time. It can result in creep deformation which weakens the tissues, eventually causing pain.

The hamstrings are attached to the ischial tuberosities (sit bones, underneath edge of pelvis).

Tight hamstrings will pull these forwards and under, rotating the pelvis into posterior tilt (tail tucked under) along with the lumbar joints attached to it. Flexing at the lower lumbar joints to compensate for poor hip ROM will overload and irritate them. 

The same can be said for your sciatic nerve which originates from your lumbar spine. 

 

Hamstrings tendinopathy 

Muscles, just like joints, don’t appreciate having to work hard at their end of ranges. Tightness of your hamstrings will decrease the available range of both your hip at top dead centre and knee at bottom dead centre. Not only can it decrease the smoothness of your pedal cycle, it can contribute to tendinopathy where the muscle attaches to bone. 

 

Knee pain 

Besides increasing lumbar flexion (and hence lumbar load), another common compensation seen by people who are trying to ride a position beyond their hip ROM capability is to rotate their knee out at the top of the pedal stroke. This puts a rotational stress on the knee joint which can lead to patellofemoral pain, ITB syndrome and tendinopathy. Also see the More Watts section below. 

 

Aerodynamics  Nicole hamstrings bike fit

Being a sport spent in flexion, a low front end position in cycling can only be achieved with good hip flexion ROM. Those with tight/stiff hamstrings (or gluts, lumbar spine or hip joint) won’t be able to sustain a low aero position for very long before pain in their back, buttock, hamstrings or even calf and foot (if sciatic nerve is involved) will stop them. 

 

More watts! 

Good hamstrings extensibility will enable the pelvis to get into more anterior tilt (and maintain lumbopelvic neutral), which puts the glutes in a better position to be recruited through a more optimal length-tension relationship. The glutes should be a large contributor to power production in the push-down phase of the pedal stroke, and if they are under-utilised, you are missing out on watts! (plus it may also overload other muscle groups, like the quads, which again has implications for knee pain). Of course, to do this effectively you will also need good lumbopelvic dissociation and proprioception (movement awareness) and not just hamstrings extensibility. 

 

Physiotherapy and a Bike Fit can help!

If you are experiencing any of the above problems, a well trained and experienced physiotherapist can identify and treat these issues, through a combination of hands-on work and rehab.

A bike fit will put you in your most ideal and capable position at the time, whilst you work on addressing the limiting factors. 

For an appointment with our Physiotherapist Bike Fitter, contact the clinic on 9955 5842, or book in online through our website 

Photo credit: Ryan Miu

Nicole Oh Bike Fit for hanstrings
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