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Book some body work

14 June, 2011

Muscles tender from all this riding? Book a massage or even DIY. Jon Miller explains the muscle repair, shortened recovery and pain relief benefits.

Tennis ball to massage back

Figure 4. Photo by On Track Images.

In 1924, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi enthralled the world by winning five gold medals at the Olympic Games, including taking the titles in the 5000 and 1500 metre events with less than half an hour recovery time between the two. He attributed his success to the massage treatments he received from the personal massage therapist that he brought to the games.

At the time, this was revolutionary; nowadays, elite athletes in every sport receive regular massages as part of their preparation for and recovery from major events. All professional cycling teams have massage therapists on their payroll. Soothing the aching muscles of weary riders after every stage of a Grand Tour is just one of the jobs of the massage therapists on tour. The treatments they provide also shorten the riders’ recovery time and resolve minor injuries before they worsen.

But you don’t have to be an elite cyclist to benefit from a massage. Anybody who has experienced sore muscles after riding will find that they feel better after a massage. It is thought that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is caused by micro-tears in the muscles after prolonged exercise. Studies by the AIS and others have all shown that massage shortens the healing time. By increasing circulation, massage brings nutrients to the muscles and flushes toxins and other wastes out.

You don’t need me to tell you that the muscles most likely to be sore after a big ride are those in the legs. The quadriceps muscles of the thighs, the gluteal muscles of the lower back and buttocks and the calf muscles do most of the work when riding. Any part of the body can be sore after riding though, especially if you have poor posture or the bike doesn’t fit you very well. Upper back and neck pain is also common, particularly on riders who use aero-bars or ride on the drops a lot.

When you see a professional massage therapist, after filling out forms, etc, the treatment will start. The therapist will apply lubricating oil and begin the massage using long, broad strokes over a wide area. This is to warm up the muscles and prepare them for the deeper work that will follow. As the massage progresses, the strokes will get shorter and firmer; the therapist will start using the heel of his hand, knuckles, thumbs or even elbows to get deep into the muscle tissue and break up the knots.

When massaging yourself, it’s important to warm up the muscles first. A good way to do this is to have a hot shower when you get back from a ride and dry yourself vigorously. Then apply a little lubricant; any natural oil such as almond oil, sunflower oil or even olive oil will do. Avoid petroleum based products such as Vaseline as these tend to clog your pores.

Start the massage using the whole of your hand, using broad strokes. Always work towards the heart so, when massaging the quadriceps, start at the knee and stroke towards the hip. Apply firm and even pressure (Figure 1).

Quad self massage

Figure 1. Photo by On Track Images.

After a minute or two of this, start kneading the muscle to improve circulation (Figure 2). Grasp the muscle with both hands, squeeze it and roll it about, once again, work towards the heart.

Quad self massage 2

Figure 2. Photo by On Track Images.

Then use your fists or knuckles to push firmly into the muscle. Cover as much of the muscle as you can but pay particular attention to the sore spots. Avoid using your thumbs or fingertips for this as the sustained pressure can easily damage your finger joints.

Massage tools can help you work out the knots. You don’t need to pay a lot of money for these as you can make do with ordinary items you probably have at home. Try lying on the floor with a tennis ball under your gluteal muscles (Figure 3). Or tie two tennis balls into a sock and lie on this with a ball on either side of your spine (Figure 4, above).

Tennis ball for massaging glutes

Figure 3. Photo by On Track Images.

Use a rolling pin to work on the long muscles of your legs (Figure 5). Experiment and be inventive, but stop if it hurts. While a little discomfort is okay, pain isn’t. Stop and try something different.

Rolling pin for massaging calf

Figure 5. Photo by On Track Images.

If you give yourself a massage after every big ride and schedule a professional massage once every month or two, you should notice the benefits. While self-massage is useful for minor aches and pains, acute injuries such as ITB syndrome are best left to a professional massage therapist or physiotherapist. The professional may show you self-massage techniques as part of a long term treatment plan, but it’s important to get their advice first.

As well as being a cyclist for over 20 years, Jon Miller is a fully qualified Remedial Massage Therapist and member of the Australian Association of Massage Therapists. He can be contacted for treatments via or

Tip – Adjust your bike to be more comfortable

There are so many adjustments you can make to your bike that there’s no need to be uncomfortable. You can easily changehow far forward or upright your sit, how far you have to reach for the brake levers and you can also change your seat for one you find more comfortable.

Watch out for these niggles:

  • If you have neck pain, ask your favourite bike shop to fit a shorter stem length and a more upward stem angle. This helps you sit up a bit higher.
  • Neck pain can also result from a seat tilted too far forward, which can cause you to lean too much on your wrists and can also aggravate your back.
  • Too much braking can make fingers cramp up. Check that your brakes are not too stiff or your fingers and hands will suffer. In extreme cases, this could transfer to the elbow and cause tendon irritation, which can be very difficult to treat. Similar pain can result from simply gripping too hard if you are a little nervous on the bike, especially if you are getting used to riding in a peloton or in traffic.
  • Padded gloves help prevent ‘handlebar palsy’, a tingling sensation in the hands during or after a ride that may even interfere with your ability to squeeze your brakes.
  • Pain under the foot arch can result from pushing hard in a high gear, because it can lead to excessive rolling of the foot. You’ll feel this pain particularly when standing and the area will also be very tender to touch.
  • Back pain can be caused by having your seat too low, which makes you push too hard with your legs, having your seat too high, which makes you rock when pedalling, or having an uncomfortably long  reach to the handlebars.

This post was for day 15 of Ride On‘s June riding challenge.

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