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Member Question: Tight Hamstring on the Bike
I can run and swim with no problems but when I get on the bike my hamstring starts to tighten up. I had my bike fitted in January and the problem seemed fine until I got out on the roads recently.
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Member Question from Miker1818
"I have been having a problem with my left hamstring while riding. My right hamstring has been fine the whole time. I can run and swim with no problems but when I get on the bike the hamstring starts to tighten up. My hamstring did tighten up at my last race in September, 2008. I have had my bike fitted to me in January and the problem seemed fine until I got out on the roads the last few weeks. I have ridden all winter on the trainer and no problems. Any suggestions on what it could be? Is it the shoes, clips, or maybe the bike fit?"
A number of factors can contribute to the hamstring issue you’re describing. The most common culprits are a hip imbalance, a saddle that’s too high, too much reach, too much saddle setback, and general overuse. You’re probably thinking that covers just about everything, right? I’ll describe a bit more about each area below.
Hip imbalances or muscle imbalances within the hips are a common problem that can lead to the symptoms you’re describing. If your pelvis is rotated or tilted when you’re sitting in the saddle then you can end up with one hamstring stretched out more than the other. The longer or more stretched hamstring tends to take on more strain and can lead to tightness and eventually a strain or a tear. If this sounds like it could be the problem, then working with a PT or Doctor to correct the imbalance through stretching and strengthening exercises is your best option.
A saddle position that’s too high places extra load on your hamstrings at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The hamstrings include muscles that work during both the push and pull phases of the pedal stroke. If your saddle is too high, then the hamstrings can potentially be stretched beyond their safe range of motion and eventually this can lead to strain and tightening. The easy solution to this problem is lowering your saddle slightly to see if this brings any relief.
Excessive reach to the aerobars puts extra strain on the lower back and upper hamstring muscles. The fix here is to shorten your aerobar extensions, or use a shorter stem to shorten the cockpit length of the bike.
Too much saddle setback isn’t typically the cause of hamstring issues, but it can be addressed as a solution. Moving your saddle forward on the bike will usually shift some of the load from the glutes and hamstrings to the quads. All the muscle groups will still get used, but in different amounts. This will typically help more on aerobar setups and is less effective on a road setup.
Overuse injuries typically involve too much volume or intensity without adequate recovery. The fact that the issue went away after your bike fitting and didn’t show up again until later this Spring could actually mean it just took that amount of time for it to be aggravated enough to bother you. I’d imagine you’ve been progressively working your way toward longer rides and/or higher intensity as the season nears. Many athletes start riding longer when they get outside as well. Despite riding pain free on the trainer, it could just be the cumulative load from the winter that’s finally caught up to you from riding outdoors. It’s more likely being influenced by some of the other factors described above, but don’t rule out a simple overuse injury that often shows up at this time of year after a winter of training.
As you can see, there are a number of different factors that can lead to the problem you’re experiencing. The explanations above should give you some good options to try. It’s always best to seek medical advice from a doctor or physical therapist with any kind of overuse injury. They’ll be able to take the guesswork out of the problem and help you find the right solution to addressing it.
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