Massage & Cycling

A Winning Combination

By Doug Freed

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Fall 2002.

Whether it’s the Tour de France or Ride the Rockies, cyclists — world-class and otherwise — are learning the lessons of massage for injury prevention, enhanced performance and faster recovery.

Cycling is a demanding activity, a sport that puts the athlete in stress for prolonged periods, sometimes for several hours at a time. While it is the legs that endure the greatest burden, many muscle groups are involved on a long ride. For these endurance machines, it isn’t enough to ride long one day then give the body plenty of time to recover. Often the rider is back on the saddle again the next day for another prolonged ride. The results can range from fatigued to damaged muscle tissues.

World-class cyclists include massage in their daily routines, often traveling with a private massage therapist. Citizen riders in races and tours across the country have available to them massage therapists. Colorado’s Ride the Rockies tour, one of America’s most popular multi-day rides, provides more than 20 massage therapists to help cyclists through the difficult stages of riding through the Rocky Mountains.

Benefits of massage don’t end with road races and tours. Mountain bike enthusiasts will net the same positive results as will a variety of other athletes. Massage tents at cycling events are commonplace, but don’t be surprised if you’re helicopter or snowcat skiing in Canada to see exhausted skiers returning to the lodge and clamoring for an evening massage. It improves performance for any athlete and that translates to a safer and more enjoyable outing.

Injury Prevention

The Baby Boomer generation remains active, but it is not remaining young. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of injury statistics, injuries to Americans in the 35- to 54-year-old age group are climbing much faster than the group’s population. Injuries to the Boomers are up 40 percent over the last decade, according to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates. This figure doesn’t include so-called minor injuries that still required more than 1 million doctor visits and accounted for a national medical bill of $22 billion.

No middle-aged basketball player would be surprised to learn basketball, with an injury rate of 8.8 per 1,000 participants, tops the Wall Street Journal list of sports most apt to cause an injury. But cyclists might be surprised to learn their sport, with 4.1 injuries per 1,000 riders, clocks in at No. 4 on the ouch list behind only basketball, soccer and softball. That puts cycling well ahead of in-line skating (3.4 injuries per 1,000) and running (0.5 injuries per 1,000).

The most common cycling injuries are crash-related: shoulder and trunk fractures and dislocations. Sitting too long on a bicycle also has its problems. Temporary impotence among riders is not unheard of, while overuse injuries to joints and muscle stress is common.

Massage therapist Michael Hargesheimer, who specializes in work with cycling athletes, offers these injury and pain-prevention tips to his clients:
•Make sure the bicycle fits the body. Have a bicycle expert provide a proper frame size, and make proper seat and handlebar adjustments.
•Implement a proper, graduated training schedule. Increase time in the saddle gradually as terrain difficulty increases. To avoid knee and back problems, get base mileage in on the flats before riding any long, steep roads or trails. Base riding should include about 500 miles of spin at 90 rpm with anaerobic threshold work added. Other conditioning should include attention to the core muscles — abs, erectors and obliques — as a means of keeping back problems at bay.

Other essential modalities are proper stretching, nutrition, hydration, active recovery activities such as swimming, cryotherapy to problem areas and self-massage.


The goal of pre-ride massage is to manually warm the muscles and tendons, helping to eliminate a cold start. It makes the warm-up time on the bike more efficient and decreases the time it takes to warm up to difficult efforts. When a therapist is available pre-ride, certainly take advantage of it. For most, that will be only a distant luxury. The pre-ride self-massage will be advantageous as well, improving circulation to tendons and ligaments and breaking adhesions in the muscles. Adhesions are muscle fibers that bundle up and need to be separated to improve freedom of movement. A proper pre-ride self-massage leaves the legs warm and invigorated.

Plan on spending about 10 minutes on the pre-ride massage, roughly one minute per muscle group.

Post-Ride Massage

After a long, sometimes grueling ride, the body begs for recovery. Legs take the brunt of the punishment — cramping and general soreness is the most common result. The upper body also takes a beating because of the unnatural posture required for serious cycling.

“The most common problem area during the ride is probably the quads,” said Julie Arrowood, a Colorado therapist who has worked on the multi-day Ride the Rockies tour for many years. “The pedaling motion, especially during the steep climbs, puts tremendous strain on that area. The upper back and shoulders also require a lot of attention. If it’s a head-wind day with a lot of climbing, the lower back and gluts are the most common complaint. The climbs can lead to a lot of cramping. Some people need work on their knees. We don’t get a lot of injuries, just a lot of sore muscles. Most participants in Ride the Rockies are in pretty good shape. They know their bodies pretty well. They also realize getting worked on regularly by a therapist can really help them make it through the week in better shape.”

A post-activity massage for almost any athlete improves recovery time by allowing fluids and toxins to be moved out of the interstitial spaces between muscle fibers, and allowing blood flow, oxygen and nutrients an opportunity to get back in. An increase of blood flow and nutrient to the muscles naturally translates to better recovery.

In the case of more serious injuries, massage can have the same effect. Swelling caused by an injury, and the production of non-flexible scar tissue, can “pinch” the flow of blood to the injured area. Athletes suffering ankle sprains or other joint strains will find massage can speed recovery by sending more blood and nutrients to the injured area.

Swelling is the evil anti-recovery agent. Whether it is caused by traumatic injury or micro-trauma to the muscle fibers during exertion, it should be treated with cold (cryotherapy), not heat. Heat increases swelling, cold decreases swelling. Therefore, no matter how inviting that hot tub looks, or how good it may feel, stay away from it. The heat will slow recovery.