Episode #44 – Solving the Mechanical Efficiency of Your Hips and Ankles

Episode #44 – Solving the Mechanical Efficiency of Your Hips and Ankles

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This episode deals with basic problems and errors rather than bike fit per se. A proper bike fit is going to go a long way in helping these elements, but a bike fit you are limited by your structure, and to some extent your event. But basically it’s your limitations that stop you from getting into certain positions on the bike. And so, depending on the extent of your limitations, a bike fit is just a band-aid. Making structural maintenance and improvement a high priority in your training will pay off no-end.

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Today is a look at two key areas, and major limitations that most cyclists will experience during their riding lives. They are limited hip function and ankle range of motion.

To guide us through this, is none other than my mobility man crush Kelly Starrett. This information is a mashup of his book, website and interviews I have listened to. It only just touches the surface, but it will give you a couple of good tools to get your hips and ankles happening.

So why even take notice of the hip and ankle? Well, the closed off position of being bent over while riding is what causes the areas to tighten, seize up and basically stop functioning efficiently. This adaptation is what we are trying to combat.

A big AHA moment for me was reading the following words in KStars book:

“As a rule you should mobilize for four minutes for every thirty minutes of sitting”

Huh? What?

The adaption of tissues in areas like the hip, especially the shortening of the front of the hip can be demonstrated in Kelly’s Skin-Pinch Test.

“Stand up, hinge from your hips, and grab a handful of skin around your hip flexors. Now stand up. What happens? You have to overextended and keep your knees bent to lift your torso upright. This is exactly what happens when you sit for long periods of time. Your hip flexors start to reflect your working position, becoming adaptively short and stiff.”

Another AHA moment I had was realising that mobility work is a continuous loop, and the only way to break the loop is to change my behaviour. For example: rather than just work on mobility of the hips, I must change my posture, my sitting, standing, basically everything that sets up my body in correct position because:

“It doesn’t matter how much you mobilize, stand up, or change your position, or what kind of chair, keyboard, or mouse you have: if you’re hanging out in a position that’s compromising your posture, you will continue to experience the same consequences.” – Kelly Starrett

Ok so this isn’t the semi-pro sitting podcast, but I hope you’re getting the picture here, it’s funny how much sitting actually relates directly to cycling. Even if you never sat down, which is the problem, you can’t avoid sitting, and when you do, you’re putting your body through this every time.

So where do we start?

Spine Position and Bracing

Posture on the bike relates to the position of your spine while sitting down, this is expressed through learning how to set-up a neutral spine and pelvis while on the bike.

You’re wanting to maintain a neutral position for your spine because it gives you the most function out of the hip by placing you in the best position to generate force.

Once fatigue sets in, this is now the danger zone and not only is your power going to be compromised, but so is your spine.

So you can do this right now, well depending on where you are, but if you’re sitting on a chair try this, if you on your bike even better.

This is a model for creating compression and position on the saddle.

The setup for the braced neutral spine position is…sit upright in your chair or on the bike, take your hands off the bars, brace your stomach by pulling your belly button down and back to your spine, and cant the entire hip system forward maintaining the back position. Allow a flat lower back, slight round in the upper if need be, but this is your riding position.

When you get tired you’re going to break into overextension (pushing the belly forward and curving the back). The belly button to spine cue enables you to keep check of where you are when you’re out on the bike and starting to fatigue. The belly out position is an unsupported spine.

It’s still about comfort, if you can recall what Steve Hogg defines lack of comfort, the muscles being enlisted for purposes they weren’t designed for and/or periods that they can’t cope with. Then we can think about the role of the belly in is to keep a positive relationship between the spine and the pelvis.

So once you can hold a neutral spine and pelvis in a braced position, which will take time and practice, we need to look at what is holding you back. Starting with your hip range-of-motion.


To Test this:

Foot together pistol squat

Bottom position of the Pistol Squat

Full lunge without breaking neutral spine

If you can’t do this, you’re missing hip range and you’re compensating somewhere else of the bike. Which can lead to injuries, or at minimum you’re leaking power to the pedals.

How to treat poor hip mobility

Before you go riding. Why? To get your hips into a good position working so they have a chance to adapt to this functionally better position.

A reminder: 2 minutes per mobility exercise is the minimum effective dose. This does not mean that’s all you have to do though. It may be longer! What you are looking for is an actual change from what you are testing. So the test, retest is the most important metric here.

Meaning before doing any mobility work for this region, test your feet together pistol squat. Make note of where you get to, then once you have gone through your mobility program for the day, retest and see if you are in a better position. That’s when you know that you’re not just ticking boxes, and actually making a real difference to your mobility.

As far the total amount you should be doing. Absolute minimum is 15 to 20 minutes per day. Everyday. If riding and sitting shorten the hip range of motion, you don’t take a day off either of those, so you cannot afford to let up on you mobility.

  • Step 1: Test with squat
  • Step 2: A combination of all or any of these. Deal with the whole front of the leg, and focus on hip openers. The couch stretch which is a favourite of mine. Also, a standard lunging hip flexor stretch does the trick.
  • Step 3: Next is flossing with a strength band. Strength Band: I use a tube folded over by half and anchored to a security door. Then you are going to floss that position. What’s banded flossing? It’s all about putting your joint into a good position. In this case working the hip capsule. Why? Your tissues adapt to your riding and sitting position, and become adaptively short. Also, the head of your femur, the end of the big leg bone that sits in the hip capsule, will move from the centre. So you’re trying to move it back to the centre of the hip capsule so you are not impinged by it in your range-of-movement. Ok, so there are two main ways you can do this. Facing the wall where the band is and facing away from the band.
  • Step 4: Retest

Not done yet.

After: Soft Tissue work with big ball.

Front of body, on top of your hip area.


Pelvic bowl

That’s easily a potential 20 minute combo of exercises.


Next up we look downstream to the ankle. The ankle is an intriguing one because like you would’ve heard Steve Hoog mention a few episodes back, if you were going to design a mechanical device to pedal a bike you would put a foot or ankle in there, but we are designed this way, so let’s look at the realities that cyclists may face with their ankle range-of-motion.

Firstly, the ankle stays in a tiny range when pedalling, especially when comparing the movement to most other sports. This means that the ankle capsule gets stiff, the heel cord gets short, bottom of feet can go numb.

The consequence of these is not having the freedom of movement to adjust and protect the rest of your leg.

One way to solve this is through a cycling specific, aftermarket sole. Again, it’s what was mentioned by Steve Hogg, around the arch support, shimming and wedging. I’m going into that stuff today.

I want to you to test your ankle range of motion once again by squatting down with your feet together or one fist apart.

Can you get all the way down into the full squat position, or do you need to prop up on your toes? If you’re on your toes like me, you have some work to do!

  • Step 1: Change the test. Sit with your legs straight in front of you with your toes pointing to the sky. Pull your toes back towards yourself. The retest is after doing each leg is where you will find the visual difference.
  • Step 2: Band or tube again against your heel in a standing position facing the wall. Then moving into the squat position and playing around, trying the get tension onto the heel cord.
  • Step 3: Stretching will do nothing here. It’s stiff tissue. You need to smash the area above the ankle at the back of the leg. Find a roller or flip on your stomach and find a super friend to move side to side on the same area.
  • Step 4: Retest


I cannot tell you which to start on first, but you are better just taking a guess and working on something rather than nothing. Pick one area at a time, and work on it. Take the power into your own hands and learn through testing and retesting. Read more of KStars stuff if you are interested in getting a broader perspective of posture, and mobility. This is only one part of a very big picture.

Tech, Hacks & Products Section

Gut issues and poo.

I have a chart to assess your Stool composition: Pick which type you most often see in the bowl.

As a guide, anything other than a consistent Type 3 or 4 can be an indicator that something’s up in there. While it may sound crude, your poo is one of the most immediate and direct feedback mechanisms you have for how healthy you are internally. Pay attention.

Read the article and see how you stack up. I found it fascinating, but I have another reason for talking about poo. This is actually a lead in to July, which is going to be Tour de France month, but also nutrition month. It’s been a long time coming but I am right in the middle of tracking down nutritionists and scientists to interview. Looking at all aspects of nutrition and diet.




Photo Credit: Coda2 on Flickr


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Build fitness on a realistic schedule with this time-saving planner.

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