Stretch for Success: Hamstring and Quadraceps Flexibility
Muscle groups behave reciprocally – that is, hamstrings (large muscles at the back of the thigh) and quadriceps (large muscles at the front of the thigh) exchange information about their activity. For example, when hams flex, a signal is sent to relax the quads. It’s important that the muscles don’t work against each other, but that they co-operate. Excessive tightness can be a hindrance to the efficiency of this system. Muscles, tendons and ligaments do not need to be loose – there is evidence that looseness reduces power. But they ought not to be tight. Optimally toned muscles move through their whole running, swimming or cycling range of motion with no sense of pulling. You should not need to use power from one muscle to stretch another as you make the movements of your sport. Optimally toning muscles facilitates range-of-motion and reduces the incidence of pulls and tears.
Here we look at some stretches, self-massage and postural issues for alleviating tight hams and quads and building for future suppleness. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, keep the following rules in mind:
— ‘Little and often’ is good! 10-15 minutes a day or even several times a week of these regimes is far preferable to an hour once a month.
— When stretching, don’t bounce; instead, ease purposefully towards the limit. Breathe, stay relaxed.
— Don’t carry out these activities right before training or racing; rather, make the time for them hours after a hard effort and recovery meal.
— There are a variety of ways of stretching: Holding each stretch for different amounts of time, doing different numbers of repeats on the same muscle, achieving the stretch from different positions. There is no one “right way to stretch”. The stretches given below are among the good ones.
— Finally, make sure you’re warm before stretching, and proceed gently. If anything hurts, stop and re-assess.
1. The old-school, reach-to-the-toes is a good opener.
Work one leg at a time. Sit on a level floor with your legs straight out. Bend your right leg, so right foot touches inside of left knee. Reach outstretched arms towards left foot. Good form for this stretch means bend at the hip, keeping the back and neck straight. Breathe, nice and deep. Hold for five seconds. Relax, and then repeat up to five times. Swap legs and reach to the right foot; five repetitions of five seconds. Do the whole thing again if it feels good! You don’t have to touch your toes; tune into your muscles and gauge the stretch for yourself.
2. Knee to chest
Lie flat on your back, legs outstretched. Bring your right leg up and grasp that knee in your right hand, and the foot in your left hand. Gently pull the lower part of your leg towards your chest. Breathe! Stay relaxed in the upper body, you’ll feel the hams ease out nicely where they meet the glutes (buttock muscles). Bring your right knee to your chest, count to three, and then ease off. Keep the left leg flat. This stretch is also good for the psoas muscle, a key stabilizer. Repeat five times, and then swap legs.
3. Ham self-massage
Sit on floor with back supported (maybe lean against the sofa), plant your feet about 18” away, shoulder-width apart, such that hams relax. One leg at a time, grab the hamstring muscles between thumbs and fingers and work from knee to buttocks, slowly and gently squeezing and kneading. You can use a massage stick to roll the muscle fibers along their length. Rock the hams from side to side. Tap the muscles percussively with bent fingers. Remember to keep breathing and keep the rest of your body relaxed.
1. Quad self-massage
Sit with legs straight out, muscles relaxed. With cupped hands gently drum up and down the quads, one leg at a time. Using the palms, rub the muscles in a circular fashion, from hip to knee and back again, for a couple of minutes. This stimulates blood-flow and helps release cross-fibers.
2. Quad rolling
If you have a massage-stick, roll it back and forth along the quads; long light strokes at first, with shorter, deeper strokes according to feel. Sometimes this is quite a challenge, especially if the muscles are tender, but it does pay off. Remember – breathe, stay relaxed, and let pain be your guide. Tune into your body, so that you can distinguish between the simple discomfort of working the tissues, or – more seriously – encountering a tear or pull. Stop if it hurts! You can use each flexibility session to increase your familiarity with your body: its balance, its needs, and its health.
3. Foot to buttock
Lie on your left side, grab your right foot with your right hand and gently pull your heel towards your buttock, feeling the quads stretch. Stay relaxed and breathe. At the limit, count to three, then ease off. Repeat five times, then swap to lie on your right side, stretching the left quads.
4. After-stretch quad massage
Sit upright, legs straight out. Relax and gently rock the quads from side to side.
There’s a ‘sweet spot’ (trigger point) about 2-3” up from the knee on the inner quad – you can subtly rotate this area with your fingertips, it helps to mobilize any ‘static’ in the fibers.
Bonus stretch! The iliotibial band (between hip and knee) is not a muscle, but a ligament, and also needs to be optimally toned like its neighbors in the thigh. Sit on the floor, right leg straight out. Bring your left leg up and aim to place your left foot on the floor outside your right knee. Wrap your right arm around your left knee and gently pull towards your chest. Stay upright, straight back – and breathe! This lengthens the IT band from knee to hip. It can be quite a stretch, so go easy, of course.
On a flat, straight section where you can roll along, unclip your right pedal, grab your right foot in your right hand and pull up towards your butt to stretch the quad, similar to the earlier example. Stay stable and avoid leaning over to the right. Repeat with the left leg. Again, whilst rolling along, you can liberate one foot from pedaling and point your leg straight out ahead, which helps to ease the hams. Take care when stretching whilst riding, of course.
In everyday life, endeavor to raise your awareness of your habits of posture and movement, and be vigilant for any tension in the muscles. Hams and quads are so important to a cyclist or runner that their condition is a priority. In particular, with knees at one end of these muscles and the lumbar region at the other, good tone – neither tight nor loose – can help maintain health and balance in these complex areas too.
Be conscious of your posture in everyday life. Notice if you sit, stand or move about with undue tension, and if so, gently address the causes and effects. Train yourself to periodically tune into your body, and whenever possible, relax yourself.
During these maneuvers, the residues of hard effort may be flushed out and make their way to the kidneys. Make sure you’re sufficiently hydrated. It doesn’t hurt to make a routine of drinking a bottle of water while you do your stretching regimen routine.
Remember – little and often, and gently does it!
Head Coach Paul Page-Hanson, M.A. is a licensed massage therapist and body work specialist as well as a coach to all levels of abilities on the dirt and road. He works out of San Francisco and is available for coaching as well as bike fitting.