In the second of our articles on Cycling in The City Nell Mead, Clinical Rehab Director of our sister company Victory Health & Performance, looks at the effects of posture and mobility on cycling performance for office professionals. She also offers a couple of simple stretches and soft tissue exercises you can do to keep yourself fighting fit.
One of the biggest issues faced by cyclists and city workers alike is back pain. In fact almost 50% of patients we see at Victory Health & Performance initially present with low back pain as their primary symptom and quite honestly I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve explained to my physiotherapy patients that sitting down all day (long hours at work, and then more hours on the bike and at home) will eventually make them “chair-shaped”.
Being static for long periods in any position is bad for you – humans are designed to move, and if we don’t, our muscles, joints and spinal discs become sluggish and stiff – but being static for long periods in a flexed position, as you are in a chair, is even worse, because our muscles also gradually shorten, adapting to the limited demands we place on them.
This is particularly important if you are a sedentary worker who wants to cycle, because of the following equation, well-known in sports and discussed in Dave’s introductory article:
power = strength x speed
Both how much you push (strength) and how fast you push it (speed) are both affected by the range of motion around the joint. In other words, it’s one thing to train hard for strength, but if you don’t also work on your range of motion, or flexibility you won’t have the mechanical advantage on shortened muscles to produce optimal speed to power up those steep hills.
Flexibility is a quality that encompasses many factors, including joint range and stiffness, neuromuscular control, muscle length and muscle compliance (and all of these factors can also be broken down still further) – but let’s look at just a couple of those and relate them to back pain.
One of the biggest factors in becoming “chair-shaped” is the length and compliance of the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh. Your hamstrings start at the base of your pelvis, so when these muscles are tight, your spine is pulled into a flexed position – a major cause of back pain.
The role of the hamstring muscle group is twofold: to extend your leg behind you and to bend your knee. When you have optimal hamstring length and compliance, you are able to sit comfortably on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, and your low back upright and relaxed, without your pelvis wanting to sag backwards. If you can’t do that easily, it may be that you have short or non-compliant hamstrings, which will affect your chances of getting back pain and your chances of powering up hills on your bike.
To correct this, there are two areas you really need to stretch (for muscle length) and massage (to improve compliance, or “bounce”) – not just the back of your thigh, but also the outer part of your buttock (piriformis), as this surrounds the sciatic nerve which can affect hamstring flexibility.
Stretch to increase muscle length
Hold each stretch for 30-40 seconds, repeat three times on each leg, and try to repeat the sequence 3-4 times per day. To increase muscle length, stretch 6 days per week; to maintain it, 3 days per week is enough. Move smoothly into each stretch and try to relax into it, rather than bouncing.
Hamstrings (back of thigh):
- Place your left foot on a low support, keeping your left knee straight.
- Bend forward slightly at the waist, and then carefully tilt your buttocks up and back, effectively pulling your hip away from your knee to create a c-shaped curve in your low back.
Piriformis (outer buttock)
- Place your right lower leg up onto the table, keeping your knee in line with the centre of your chest. If your piriformis is tight, you may not be able to get your knee quite as low as the girl in the picture, but try to drop your knee as low as you can while staying as relaxed as possible.
- Once you’re in position, try to bend forward at the waist, keeping your back straight and your head up, so that you don’t collapse over the leg.
Massage to improve muscle compliance
The best way to improve muscle compliance is through skilled sports massage, as a good therapist’s fingers (and thumbs and elbows!) will find and tease out tight and fibrous areas of tissue, helping the entire muscle to relax and become compliant. So for best results, we highly recommend the lovely Helen Murawska (pictured on the foam roller). However, if you don’t have the spare time or cash to devote to it, a reasonably good (if a bit more painful) alternative is to get on the foam roller or cricket ball and massage it yourself.
- Place the roller horizontally under your hamstrings, leaning your weight back onto your hands. Your feet and bottom should both be off the ground.
- Lift your right leg into the air so that your weight rests only on your left thigh.
- Using your arms to propel you, slowly roll back and forth so that the roller moves from your hip to your knee. If you find a particularly tight or tender spot, stop there and consciously relax your muscle until the tenderness releases. Continue for around a minute, then switch legs.
- Sit on the roller, resting your weight back onto your hands so that both feet are off the ground, and place your right ankle over your left knee.
- Rotate slightly to the right, so that your weight rests on your right buttock.
- Using your arms to propel you, shift your weight around your right buttock until you find a particularly tight or tender spot. If it’s too tender, take more weight through your arms, or put your left foot down. If you’re not feeling it enough, reach forward with your left arm and pull your knee a bit further across your body.
- Continue for around a minute, then switch legs.
If you don’t notice significant improvements in your flexibility (remember that sitting with legs out straight test?) or hamstring power within a couple of weeks, it’s possible that there could be more going on than just the muscles – for example, joint or disc stiffness, poor neuromuscular patterning, or mechanical imbalance – so it’s worth getting checked out by a good physiotherapist.
“As someone lucky enough to enjoy the twin delights of an office job (lots of sitting down) and above average height (I’m sick of tall-person jokes), it’s no surprise that lower back problems were eventually going to come my way. And come my way they did, with the sudden onset of ‘acute locked back’ while doing nothing more demanding than standing up in my kitchen one day. I would strongly recommend any office worker getting into cycling to take their posture and mobility seriously as I could have saved myself one of the most painful experiences of my life, and the inconvenience of a recovery period lasting several months. However, it turns out that just a couple of minutes of exercises each night, alleviating the compressed discs at the base of my spine, are all that are required to prevent it from happening again. Thankfully, Nell at Victory Health & Performance managed to dedicate some careful attention to the offending back muscles in just 4 sessions and I now have a fighting chance of discarding the walking stick and completing a 300-mile charity cycle ride just three weeks from now. ”
The final article in this series will look at strength and conditioning for City Cycling Professionals.
Major (Retd) Nell Mead is a former Army physiotherapist who now runs Victory Health & Performance, the sports injury centre in the city where the best get better. She specialises in back pain and sports injury assessment and treatment. For more information, go to www.victoryhealthandperformance.com or to book an appointment, call administrator Sarah Harvey on 07702 808 303.
Stretch pictures are used with permission from Tanya Bell-Jenje, www.bellrogersphysio.co.za
Foam roller pictures are modelled by sports therapist Helen Murawska MSc of Victory Health & Performance