About Abi - Abi Carver designs yoga routines for mountain bikers looking to eliminate muscular aches and pains, gain an edge in competition and unlock razor sharp mental focus, for next level performance. Her aim is to make yoga more accessible to action sports athletes so that they can do the activities they are passionate about for longer, with less pain and with more skill. Follow her @yoga15app for more yoga tips and tutorials.
Tight hamstrings, as with the other aches, pains and limited range of motion you experience as a mountain biker, do not have one simple cause and an equally uncomplicated solution. As you may have already discovered, consistently stretching your hamstrings is not getting you any closer to touching your toes. When you stretch chronically tight or overactive muscles without correcting the cause of the dysfunction, you may provide temporary relief, but you risk tearing the muscle. As always, we need to adopt a multi-faceted approach that combines stretching, mobility work, strengthening exercises, and deep breathing.
As a qualified yoga instructor, I've not been trained to evaluate postural and sport-related musculoskeletal dysfunctions, so I’ve worked closely on this article with Structural Integration and Myoskeletal Therapist Ari Globerman to put together a prescription designed to safely and effectively loosen up tight hamstrings.
What are the hamstrings? The hamstrings are a group of muscles that run down the back of your leg from the hips to your lower leg, crossing behind the knee joint. They are responsible for hip extension and knee flexion.
Hamstrings are one of the main muscle groups that are active when you’re riding. The upper part of the hamstrings is involved in the downstroke of pedaling and the lower part is active as you bend your knee for the upstroke.
What are the main causes of tight hamstrings? By tight hamstrings, I’m referring to a sensation of stiffness in the backs of the legs, as well as an inability to move your muscles and joints through full range of motion ie. to touch your toes.
1. Tight hip flexors The hip flexors (psoas, iliacus, rectus femurs and tensor fascia lata) become tight from spending the majority of the time in a shortened position – sitting at work, in the car, in front of the TV and then on the bike.
2. Weak glutes Overactive hip flexors inhibit the glutes through a process known as ‘reciprocal inhibition’. As the muscles on one side of a joint become overactive, the antagonist muscles become underactive or ‘inhibited’. In the absence of glute strength and engagement, the hamstrings are forced to assist in stabilizing the hips and core.
3. Tight lower back (spinal erectors) The other synergistic muscles – the spinal erectors and adductor magnus – also have to work harder to compensate for a lack of flute strength and so become tight.
4. Tight quads The quads – the biggest muscle involved in mountain biking – get tight from overuse.
5. Lower back and SI joint problems Shortened hip flexors, weak glutes, tight lower back muscles and overdeveloped quads can cause the pelvis to tilt forward. Pelvic misalignment can inhibit glute firing and force lower back muscles and hamstrings into compensatory tightness.
6. Weak core Try this test to see how a weak core can affect hamstring flexibility.
- Perform a toe touch and make a mental note of your range of motion in the hamstrings. - Now, sit down with good posture and squeeze a pillow between your knees slowly for 40 reps. Squeeze….1…2...release. You can do 2 sets of 20. Don’t squeeze the pillow with maximum force. Go to about 50%. - Repeat the toe touch. If you have an inhibited/weak core, you'll notice the difference in your hamstring flexibility.
How tight hamstrings affect your riding? Any muscle tightness is going to negatively affect your riding. To be the fastest and most technically skillful rider you can be, you need to have full flexibility throughout the entire body.
Loosening your hamstrings will: - Alleviate lower back, knee, shoulder, neck and wrist pain - Result in a more comfortable riding position - Enable you to get more power through the pedals - Increase your speed - Improve your balance and agility on the bike - Reduce your risk of damaging ligaments, tendons, and muscles
The routine These 12 sequences involve multi-planar movements, stretching, strengthening, alignment and deep breathing. They will force you out of your habitual compensation patterns, lubricate your joints, stimulate blood flow, increase your range of motion, activate weak muscles and relax overactive muscles.
Move through them in this order and repeat as often as necessary.
1. Decompress The Spine/Ease Lower Back Tightness: 3-Part Breath
Instructions - From all fours, walk your hands forward, tuck your toes and come up into Plank. - Spread your fingers wide and press your hands evenly into the mat. Check that your shoulders are directly over your wrists and your feet are hip-width apart. - Try to create a straight line all the way from your heels to your hips, to the back of your head. - Engage your core and press back through your heels to straighten your legs. Contract your glutes, allowing your hip flexors to relax. - Look down at the mat to complete your alignment. - Hold the pose for up to a minute.
Instructions - Come to all fours with your knees hip-width apart and your hands a few inches in front of your shoulders. - Tuck your toes and lift your hips up – keep your knees bent. Spread your fingers wide and press your palms evenly into the mat – index fingers point straight ahead. - Try to straighten your elbows, rotate your arms outward to feel a broadening across your upper back and press firmly into your hands. - Tilt your pelvis up and fully lengthen your spine. Check that both knees point forward and do not fall in towards each other – feet are shoulder-width apart. Allow your head to hang naturally between your arms. - Walk out your feet to stretch the backs of your legs. - Hold the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Take a deep breath in, and come down to all fours on an exhalation.
Instructions - From Downward Dog, step your right foot in between your hands. Drop your left knee to the mat and release your back foot. Check that your right knee is directly above your right ankle. - Inhale, sweep your arms out and up into crescent lunge, bring your palms together or shoulder-width apart. Exhale, drop your right fingertips to the mat and bend to the right. Reach through your fingertips. - Stay in the pose for 5-10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - To come out of the pose, take a deep breath in. Exhale, bring your hands to the mat and step back to Downward Dog for the other side.
Instructions - From Downward Dog, step your feet together. Inhale, sweep your right leg up to the sky. Exhale, bring your right knee forward, place it on the mat behind your right wrist and position your left foot under your left hip. - Release your back foot and slide it back. Look behind you to check that your left leg is straight. - If your hips are not level, you can support the hip of your bent leg on a cushion. - Inhale, press into your fingertips and lengthen your spine. Exhale, walk your hands forward and come down onto your forearms. - If you'd like to go deeper, cross your arms and rest your forehead on the mat. Sink deeper into the pose with every breath. - Stay in the pose for up to 2 minutes, breathing in and out through your nose. - To come out of the pose, bring your hands back to the mat, press into your palms, tuck your back toes, lift your hips up and press back to Downward Dog for the other side.
8. Hamstring Stretch: Wide-Leg Standing Forward Bend
Instructions - Step your feet at least a meter apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead. - Inhale, bring your hands to your hips and lengthen your spine. Exhale, hinge at your hips, draw your abs in and fold forward with a flat back. You can keep your knees bent if you feel your lower back starting to round. - Take hold of opposite elbows and hang here, or bring your hands to the mat or to blocks underneath your shoulders for support. - You can play around with the width of your feet. The wider your stance, the easier it is to fold forward, but if you go too wide, you may feel unstable. - Stay here for up to 2 minutes, breathing in and out through your nose. - To come out of the pose, inhale, bring your hands to your hips, press into your feet and come up with a flat back. Exhale, step your feet together.
Instructions - From kneeling, bring your right foot flat to the mat, drop down inside your left foot and walk your front foot out as far as you need to to bring both sitting bones flat to the mat. - Place your hands behind you, fingertips facing forward and lean back as far as is comfortable. - If you have tight quads, you can support yourself on your hands or your elbows. - You can also put a cushion under your right hip. - Aim to keep your bent knee pointing forward. - If you can lower your head all the way down to the mat, bring your arms up overhead and hold onto opposite elbows. - Stay in the pose for 5 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - To come out of the pose, release your arms, bring your hands to the mat and carefully lift yourself back up for the other side.
Instructions - Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat to the mat. Hug your right knee in towards your chest. - Straighten your right leg up to the sky and push through your heel. Walk your hands up your leg to take hold of the back of your thigh, calf, ankle or big toe. - You can loop a strap, belt or towel around the arch of your top foot to keep the leg straight and isolate the stretch. - Hold the pose for up to 2 minutes, breathing in and out through your nose. Contract your quads to release your hamstrings. - Release the pose and switch sides.
Other things you can do As well as practicing these sequences every 2-3 days, here are some further recommendations:
- Be conscious of your daily movement patterns so that the imbalance doesn't just continue to reoccur. Try to sit as little as you can get away with and take movement breaks every 30 minutes. - Foam roll your inner thighs, hamstrings, shins, calves, quads and glutes. - Sports massage stimulates blood flow, realigns muscle fibres, and connective tissue and can help to reduce tension
Please let me know how you get on in the comments below. And share this article with anyone you think could do with some yoga inspiration.