For many cyclists, flexibility tends to take the backseat in their training plans. If that includes you, you might want to consider moving flexibility to the forefront.

“If a cyclist is having pain or they’re looking for ways to improve performance, flexibility is a great place to start,” says Rachel Andrews, CPT, a USA Cycling-certified coach.

For tips on how to improve flexibility—and what it even means to do so—we asked Andrews and other experts, and consulted research, to bring you the best advice.

What is flexibility and how does it differ from mobility?

For all the talk of flexibility, few people can define it—let alone explain how it differs from mobility. But at its most basic, flexibility refers to the ability of muscles and connective tissues to relax and stretch through their full range of motion at a joint (where two bones connect). Mobility, on the other hand, refers to a joint’s ability to move and maintain strength through a full range of motion.

While flexibility and mobility differ, each one affects the other. Tight, inflexible muscles can restrict movement where they cross over a joint, says Melissa Gallitan, PT, OCS, ATC, a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Similarly, a stiff joint can limit how far the muscles are able to go. Over time, poor flexibility can lead to poor mobility, and vice-versa. In other words, it’s crucial to pay attention to both.

What are the benefits of flexibility for cyclists?

“Having appropriate flexibility and joint mobility is important for preserving normal joint mechanics and therefore good joint health—not only on the bike but during daily life,” Gallitan says.

On the bike, adequate flexibility in the back, hips, and hamstrings in particular helps you maintain strong posture, “especially if trying to be more aerodynamic,” Gallitan says.

Without enough flexibility in these areas, your body will change your biomechanics to compensate. For example, if you can’t hinge from your hips due to lack of flexibility in your back and hamstrings, you might compensate by curving the lumbar (lower) spine, which adds stress to the lower back and even your neck. “I think of it like picking up something super heavy off the ground with a curved spine. You’re going to wake up the next day with a sore back, or potentially injure yourself,” Andrews says. “It’s the same thing on a bike. You’re not lifting something heavy, but you’re in that position for the duration of a bike ride.”

Cyclists with poor hip flexibility and mobility may also compensate by pushing their knees out at the top of the pedal stroke, “which then changes the joint mechanics at the knee, causing knee pain,” Gallitan says.

All that said, improving your flexibility can help you achieve and maintain a more comfortable cycling posture. And it may even help you become more aerodynamic in the process, considering the more you can flex forward at the hips and back, the less you’ll have to fight wind resistance, Gallitan explains, and the easier it’ll be to pick up speed.

Off the bike, flexibility can help you move with greater ease too. “If you can’t move a certain way because of restriction through your muscles, and then you try to, it’s going to be really uncomfortable,” Andrews says. “Ever heard of someone hurting themselves picking up a pencil off the floor? We laugh, but it happens all the time.”

Similar to your cycling posture, that’s because if you don’t have enough range of motion in your hamstrings to hinge forward and pick something off the floor, your lower back will kick in to compensate, leading to soreness and/or injury. But once you start improving your end range of motion, you may notice that these everyday movements become easier.

Finally, activities that improve your flexibility can get your body out of its typical positions, like sitting at a desk all day and then hopping on the bike—both of which involve hip flexion and often, rounded shoulders. “Anytime you can get out of that same plane of motion is good in my book,” Andrews says.

The 3 Best Ways to Improve Flexibility

Now that you know how flexibility can elevate your rides and daily activities, you might wonder how to improve it. The following practices will help you limber up.

Note that it can take months of consistent effort to show improvements in flexibility, so it’s important to stay patient during the process, Gallitan says.

1. Static Stretching

Static stretching is a classic flexibility builder. It involves stretching a muscle just shy of its furthest point and then holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds. A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis of 19 studies published in Physiotherapy Theory and Practice found that static stretching proved effective in increasing hamstring flexibility in healthy young adults.

Andrews suggests cyclists perform the following static stretches after your ride when your muscles are warm.

➥ Figure-Four Stretch Against Wall

how to stretch back, supine figure four

Thomas Hengge

Lie faceup with glutes a few inches away from a wall. Bend knees and place both feet flat against the wall. Cross right ankle over left knee. You should feel a gentle stretch in right glute.

If the stretch is too intense, move glutes further from the wall. Breathe and hold the stretch for 45 seconds. Switch sides and repeat. Do 2-3 sets per side.

➥ Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

how to improve flexibility, hip flexor stretch

Thomas Hengge

Begin in a half-kneeling position so both legs are bent 90 degrees. Flex back foot. Tuck tailbone slightly forward and gently push hips forward until you feel a slight stretch in quad (front of thigh) and hip flexor (front of hip). Breathe and hold the stretch for 45 seconds. Switch sides and repeat. Do 2-3 sets per side.

➥ Supine Spinal Twist

how to stretch back, lower trunk rotation

Thomas Hengge

Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift hips slightly off the floor and shift them about an inch to right. Bring knees into chest, then drop them to the left. Open arms into a T shape with palms up. Breathe and hold the stretch for 45 seconds. Switch sides and repeat. Do 2-3 sets per side. You can also deepen the stretch by keeping left leg straight, hugging right knee into chest, and taking it across the body, knee reaching toward floor with arms still out in a T shape.

2. Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique in which you roll tight muscles on a cylindrical tube made of dense foam. This can help you achieve greater results from static stretching, according to at least one small study. A International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study published in 2015 and involving 11 participants found that athletes who foam rolled and then performed static stretches improved their flexibility more than static stretching alone.

Also, a meta-analysis, looking at 21 studies and published in Frontiers in Physiology in 2019, found that foam rolling can improve flexibility, at least in the short-term, particularly when used as a warmup to activity—and it doesn’t hinder performance (like static stretching might before a workout).

Andrews recommends doing these foam roller moves after a workout before moving on to your static stretches, though you could also incorporate them into your preride routine. Remember to breathe. If you experience pain, lighten the pressure or stop altogether.

➥ Quadriceps

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Get into a plank position and place the foam roller under quads (the front part of thighs). Roll down the length of thighs, stopping when the roller reaches knees. Then, roll back up until you reach hips. As you roll up and down, be sure you also work toward the outside of thighs. Repeat for about 30 seconds, pausing on particularly tight spots. Start using light pressure, gradually increasing it until it’s slightly uncomfortable but not painful. Make sure to move slow.

➥ Back

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Lie on faceup with the foam roller under upper back. Bend knees and place feet flat on the ground. Cross arms over chest and lift hips up into a bridge position. Slowly roll down to the middle of the back. Then, roll back up to lower neck. Repeat for about 30 seconds. Start using light pressure, gradually increasing it until it’s slightly uncomfortable but not painful. Make sure to move slow.

➥ Glutes

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Sit on the foam roller (like you’re sitting on a log). Lean back to place hands on the floor behind you for support. Keep right foot flat on the floor and extend left leg. Slowly roll down glute until you reach the top of hamstring (the back of thigh). Then, roll back up until you reach the top of glute. Repeat for about 30 seconds. You can also cross left ankle over right knee to get deeper into the glute. Start using light pressure, gradually increasing it until it’s slightly uncomfortable but not painful. Make sure to move slow.

3. Yoga

Yoga is a gentle, effective way to improve flexibility and mobility. “It’s great because you use your body weight to work in positions in your end range of motion,” Andrews says.

Research backs up the benefits of yoga on flexibility, too. One study published in PLoS One involving 40 college students found that after 16 weeks of practicing yoga, they improved flexibility in their lower back, legs, groin, and hips. Another meta-analysis, published in the International Journey of Environmental Research and Public Health, which examined 12 studies, found that yoga can improve lower-body flexibility in the older population.

Gallitan favors the following yoga poses for cyclists. Do them after a ride or use them to break up periods of sitting throughout the day.

➥ Child’s Pose

how to improve flexibility, childs pose

Joshua Simpson

Begin on all fours with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread knees wide and allow big toes to touch. Push palms into the floor to sit back into hips. Let glutes rest on heels. Allow chest to rest in between thighs and bring forehead to the floor. Widen knees further and/or prop head on a yoga block if needed. Take 5-10 slow, controlled breaths.

➥ Downward-Facing Dog

si joint exercises, downward dog

Thomas Hengge

Begin on all fours with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers and curl toes under. Then, lift knees off the floor and push hips up and back to straighten legs. Push palms into the floor. Keep elbows soft and rotate them inward. Let heels drop toward the floor, keeping a soft bend in knees. Take 5-10 slow, controlled breaths.

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Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Runner’s WorldPrevention, Experience Life and Women’s Running.

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