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. Muscle 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 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:-
So, if the threat of injury doesn’t convince you, perhaps the possibility of being faster will!
No joints like being loaded at end of range for sustained periods of time, which results in creep deformation and 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.
Muscles as well as joints don’t like 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.
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.
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.
Good hamstrings extensibility will enable the pelvis to get into more anterior tilt (and maintain lumbopelvic neutral), which puts the gluts in a better position to be recruited through a more optimal length-tension relationship. The gluts 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.
So, if you want to be proactive and start working on the above, here are some exercises that you can start with:-
I hope you have found this useful. For more information on cycling including lots of videos including bike set up please check out the rest of this website. To book a one to one session with me for a ‘cycling assessment’ to assess your bike set up and give you tailored exercises and training advice, or if you have any pain or injuries, please call 02075838288.
…. and please don’t forget to share with anyone you know cycles.
Cycling Specialist Chartered Physiotherapist
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