Whether you’re a casual cyclist or a dedicated racer, you probably know about the wear and tear that can come with long-term cycling.
Of course, a biking session is still a great way to boost your metabolism, relieve stress, and get out for a mini adventure. But for all the ways it benefits your well-being, it can also come with many strains and pains down the line. So, can massage therapy improve your cycling recovery routine? And if so, what are the best tools to try?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about massage for cyclists, including its benefits, tools, and how to get started.
The Physical Demands of Cycling
There are many types of cycling out there — cyclocross, mountain biking, and road cycling, to name a few. But one common trend among all these practices is that they can put significant strain on your body.
After a few miles on the trails, it’s not uncommon to wind up with sore quadriceps, hamstrings, or glutes. And this is on top of the potential posture-related issues that can come with longer-term cycling, which may result in future back and neck pain.
With that being said, finding ways to support your body as a cyclist is key. And along with proper recovery time, eating well, and regularly stretching, massage can be an excellent tool to help you achieve that.
Benefits of Massage for Cyclists
In 2018, a whopping 47.5 million people treated themselves to a massage in the US — with a large portion of those choosing it for health reasons.
The wellness-boosting benefits of massage can make it especially impactful for cyclists and others who live active lifestyles. A single session can provide benefits like:
Reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) tends to go hand-in-hand with cycling, especially when you’re a beginner or are training for a large event. Fortunately, research suggests that massage can be a powerful tool for relieving DOMS-related pain.
In one 2017 meta-analysis from Frontiers in Physiology, researchers looked at eleven studies involving 504 participants. Remarkably, they found that a massage after an intense workout may relieve DOMS and even improve muscle performance.
Easing Other Cycling-Related Sprains and Pains
Because of the way you sit and move while cycling, it’s common to experience muscle pain and stiffness (aside from DOMS) after a ride.
For example, your neck and upper trapezius muscles might hurt because of how you lean over your bike. Or, you might notice lower back pain after spending a few hours on the trails.
In any case, massage is a great tool to knead away pain in many of the muscle groups you use while cycling. And in some cases, it can also help soothe more specific sports-related injuries. These may include:
- Tendonitis: Patellar (knee) and Achilles tendonitis are common injuries among cyclists. Thankfully, proper massage may help to ease the pain throughout the healing process.
- Overuse pain: Massage may also offer relief from other repetitive stress-related conditions, like runner’s knee and carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Knee pain: For mild cases of knee pain, massaging the muscle groups around the joint can help alleviate pain and discomfort.
- Plantar fasciitis. If you’re a cyclist with plantar fasciitis or heel pain, a quick 5-10 minute foot massage can help soothe your symptoms when they flare up.
Improves Flexibility and Range of Motion (ROM)
Another lesser-known benefit of massage for cyclists is that it can help support joint health and boost range of motion (ROM).
How? Well, the right massage techniques can help relieve muscle tension that may be contributing to restricted movement around the joints. Plus, it can help warm up the soft tissue and break up adhesions (knots) in busy muscle groups.
These benefits, combined with a healthy dose of active stretching before you start cycling, can help you move more comfortably while you ride.
Boosts Well-Being Pre- and Post-Event
There are a massive number of cycling events in the world — from Olympics-style racing to ultra-distance marathons and more. And if you’ve ever participated in one of these events, you know how much time and effort goes into preparing and recovering.
Cyclists will often train for up to 20 hours per week, adding other strength and cardiovascular workouts on top of it. Luckily, massage can be a great tool to support your health throughout the prep and recovery process.
Whether you’re feeling sore from pre-event training or you just finished your first race, treating yourself with a massage session can help curb stiffness, reduce DOMS, and generally boost your well-being during the process.
Supports Recovery Through Healthy Sleep
As an athlete, getting enough sleep is a crucial step in the recovery process. This is the time when your body repairs muscle tissue and regenerates cells after damage — and not getting enough of it can take a toll on your physical and mental performance.
The good news? A short nighttime massage could help you get more restful sleep. In fact, past research suggests that massage can help improve sleep quality for many groups of people, including adults, the elderly, those with insomnia, and those with certain types of pain.
Aside from the physiological benefits of massage for cyclists, there are also plenty of mental and emotional benefits, too. Athletes who use regular massage might notice:
- Improved perceptions of fatigue and energy levels
- A drop in stress and anxiety
- A boost in mood and mental well-being
- Improved perception of athletic recovery
What Are the Best Self-Massage Tools for Cyclists?
If you’re looking for easy ways to access massage on your own schedule, there are many excellent recovery massage tools to choose from — from lower-cost manual options to therapeutic electric massagers and more.
Here are some of the best options for cyclists, along with how they work:
- Foam rollers: These tools come in many varieties and textures. Some are even battery-powered and offer several massage speeds to suit different needs and comfort levels.
- Massage balls: Almost anything round can act as a massage ball (think golf balls or tennis balls). But like foam rollers, you can also find more advanced massage balls on the market.
- Massage canes: These are manual cane-shaped tools that make it easy to reach knots in the upper back, shoulder blades, and neck.
- Massage guns: These are a top choice among athletes, and for good reason. They’re powerful, simple to use, and can deliver the benefits of a therapeutic massage in just 1 to 2 minutes per muscle group.
- Electric massagers: Electric massage tools can vary greatly in their size and the way they work. Shiatsu foot massagers, handheld body massagers, and even massage chairs fall under this category.
4 Easy Cyclist Self-Massage Techniques
If you’re thinking about trying massage but aren’t sure where to start, here are some easy techniques that can help you soothe common cycling aches and pains:
Foam Rolling the Quadriceps
Foam rolling provides a straightforward way to work into your muscles on a deep level. It takes just a few minutes, is fairly simple to do, and can be used before or after a cycling session.
Here are the steps to a basic exercise that can help you roll away cycling-related quadriceps pain:
- Place the foam roller on the ground in front of you.
- Lower your body down into a plank position. Then, gently position your body so that your lower quad (just above the knee) is resting on the roller. (You can bend your opposite leg out to the side for more stability.)
- Begin to slowly roll the lower quad forward and backward. Repeat for 1 to 2 minutes.
- When you find an especially tight area, pause and hold the pressure for a few seconds.
- Rotate your leg so that your outer quadriceps is now resting on the foam roller. Repeat the rolling motion for another 1 to 2 minutes.
Calf Massage With a Massage Gun
Massage guns are making their way into nearly every athlete’s recovery kit — and when it comes to cycling, they’re some of the most convenient options for relieving tight, achy calf muscles.
- Sit in a comfortable chair, and cross one leg up over your opposite knee.
- Choose your massage gun attachment. If you’re looking for more all-over relief, the large, round attachment is a great choice to start with. But for deeper work on the lower calf, the fork attachment can also work well.
- Turn the massage gun to your desired setting.
- Glide it at an angle along the calf muscle for a total of 1 to 2 minutes.
Oscillating Foot Massage for Healthy Circulation
Every time you ride a bike, the force from your leg muscles is transferred through your feet as you push the pedals. For this reason, it’s probably no surprise that foot pain is common among cyclists.
Thankfully, whether you’re dealing with Achilles tendonitis or general heel pain, an oscillating massager can help soothe the discomfort after a long ride.
- Place the foot massager on the ground in front of you.
- Turn it onto the lowest, gentlest setting.
- Place your feet on the massage surface, allowing your feet muscles to warm up for a few seconds.
- Note how the pressure feels to you, and increase to your desired level after 1 to 2 minutes.
- Allow the massager to knead into your feet for a total of 10 to 15 minutes, up to a few times per day.
Trapezius and Neck Self-Massage
Because of the strain and shock that the upper body absorbs while biking, up to 60% of cyclists will deal with neck and back pain at some point. Fortunately, you can turn to hands-on massage techniques to help alleviate this pain when it comes up.
Here are the steps:
- Start by sitting with upright posture and gently tilting your head to the right.
- Use your pointer, middle, and ring finger to knead along your neck and upper trapezius muscle in circular motions. Start from the left shoulder and make your way up to the base of your head. Repeat for 30 seconds.
- Then, use two fingers to palpate along the upper back and neck. If you find a tense area, hold moderate pressure over the point for 10 seconds.
- Massage your left side for 2 to 3 minutes. Then, repeat this technique on the right.
The Benefits of Professional Sports Massage for Cyclists
If you’re already an avid user of at-home recovery tools, you might also be curious about professional sports massage. This is an advanced modality that combines techniques like effleurage, stretching, kneading, and wringing to:
- Break up scar tissue and adhesions
- Improve recovery and DOMS symptoms
- Relieve muscle stiffness
- Improve mobility and flexibility
Compared to home massage, this modality offers a more in-depth way to boost performance, support your training, and prevent sports-related injuries. And if you’re a dedicated cyclist who participates in events and races, it could be a service well worth investing in.
Massage Safety Tips
Before visiting a spa or picking up a massage gun, it’s important to note that some injuries and conditions may not be suitable for massage. Be sure to hold off and check with your doctor first if you have:
- An acute injury, such as a tear or broken bone
- A history of blood clots
- Uncontrolled hypertension or another cardiovascular condition
- Skin conditions or open wounds
- Conditions that affect kidney or liver functioning
- Any medical condition that you aren’t sure about
Other Healthy Cycling Tips
Cycling is one of the best low-impact ways to improve your fitness at almost any age. And if you plan on cycling for the long haul, here are some more steps you can take to stay injury and pain-free in the future:
As a cyclist, it’s important to keep good posture while you ride. This can ensure that your body — especially your spine, neck, and trapezius muscles — absorb as little strain as possible. A simple way to do this is to keep your spine neutral and remember to relax your shoulders.
Additionally, keep these tips in mind to avoid other common types of cycling pain:
- For hand and wrist pain: Keep a strong yet relaxed grip, and ensure your wrists are relatively straight. Switch up your hand positions when you notice discomfort — and if you could use even more protection, tools like handlebar tape can help absorb vibrations while you ride.
- For knee pain: Stretch regularly and increase your training intensity gradually. It’s also important to check that your saddle isn’t too high or too low.
- Shoulder pain: To keep shoulder pain at bay, try to avoid locking your elbows while cycling. Instead, bending them slightly can help cushion some of the shock.
A good warm-up full of dynamic stretches — aka exercises that move your joints in their full range of motion — can help bring heat and blood flow to your muscles before you start cycling.
Pulse squats, arm circles, and leg swings are all good options to start with. However, 10 to 20 minutes of almost any lightweight movements that you enjoy can help warm your muscles up before you hit the road.
Not only can strength training help you perform better on your bike, but it can also help with muscle imbalances, posture, and injury prevention.
So, how often should you include it in your routine? According to a Bicycling Magazine interview with physical therapist and cycling specialist Ellen Foster, cyclists can benefit from two to three strength training sessions per week during the off-season.
And if you ramp up your training before a race or event, you can shift gears into “maintenance” mode — strength training as little as 30 to 45 minutes per week.
Massage therapy is a natural tool that can help you stay agile and pain-free throughout your cycling journey. Not only can it help with common aches, but it can also promote healthy sleep, improve range of motion, and curb the effects of DOMS. Plus, it can bring on a variety of mental benefits — including better mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.
If you have any current injuries or medical conditions, be sure to check with your doctor before trying massage. Once you’re all set, you can grab a foam roller, massage ball, or a therapeutic massage gun to start enhancing your recovery routine at home.