Technique: Stretching the truth

Warming up is one thing, but why bother with stretching?

Stretching, conventional wisdom would have us believe, is something that every athlete should do. It’s often touted as a universal solve-all, but is it really all it’s cracked up to be, and specifically, what benefit is it, if any, to cyclists?

Before and after effects

Let’s start with pre-exercise stretching. The physiological benefits of an aerobic warm-up are backed up by plenty of research. Getting the muscles up to a good working temperature and the heart and lungs firing properly makes achieving and maintaining a high level of intensity a lot easier. If you’ve ever tried to climb hard from cold you’ll know it just won’t happen. However, spend 10 minutes spinning on the flat and you can power up that hill.

Stretching after a warm up will simply cool the body back down and send you back to square one. There’s also no point stretching before the warm-up, as ‘cold muscle’ is about as pliable as wood.

Injury prevention is often touted as a reason for pre-exercise stretching, but almost all of the studies conducted have shown little or no significant effect. With regard to improving performance, results range from no effect to a significant detrimental effect on strength and peak power output.

Sports like football or tennis, with unpredictable multi-directional movements, may benefit from some stretching to prepare the body. Movement in cycling, though, is predictable because you’re in a fixed position with little or no scope for lateral movement.

With post-exercise stretching, traditionally thought to reduce muscle soreness and prevent injury, the evidence is also far from conclusive. Analysis of all available studies carried out at the University of Sydney found that less than 2% of athletes reported a reduction in muscle soreness due to stretching. Similarly, studies on stretching and injury prevention with army recruits found very little benefit. The only sports where ‘muscle tightness’ appears to increase injury risk are again multi-directional sprint sports.

From a performance aspect, studies on both sprinters and long distance runners have shown that increased flexibility may reduce the elastic effect of their muscles, tendons and ligaments and actually slow them down.

Free speed

So, should we forget about stretching? Actually no – just look at pro cyclists and how dedicated they are to stretching. They do it because being flexible makes them faster. The hours of work they put into maintaining and developing flexibility in their hamstrings, glutes, lower/middle back, neck and shoulders allows them to adopt extremely aggressive and highly aerodynamic positions in relative comfort over extended periods of time. In a time trial the gains from this can be measured in minutes rather than seconds and, even in a road stage, being able to stay down on the drops, rather than on the hoods or tops, can mean the difference between a long solo break working or not. For the aspiring racer or sportive rider, being comfortable down on the drops for long periods can significantly up your average speed and help preserve your energy for when you need it on the climbs. Along with shifting a few pounds of weight, a more aerodynamic riding position from improved flexibility is ‘free speed’.

Flexibility can be defined as the static maximum range of motion (ROM) available about a joint. The relative tightness of the muscles, tendons and ligaments impacts on this, but the biggest limiting factor is actually joint structure. Simply put, if you haven’t got the right joints, no amount of painful contortions are going to make you super bendy. However, with regular stretching the pliability of the soft tissues can be developed and your own ROM increased within the limits of your joint structure.

Flex your muscles...

Work through the following short cycling specific routine daily and, after a few weeks, tweak your ride position and see if you can get a bit more aero. Hold each stretch/position for 15-30 seconds at the point where you start to feel the stretch but before you feel discomfort or the muscle starts to judder. As you breathe and relax into the stretch you’ll find you can gently deepen it. Relax the stretch off for a few seconds and then repeat for another 15-30 second hold before moving on to the next.

1 Chest

Find a doorway and place the hand and forearm of one arm flat against the upright. Rotate your upper body to develop a stretch into the chest and front of shoulder.

2 Knee to chest

Lying on your back, keep one leg straight and hug the other into your chest. Relax into the stretch and with each exhalation try to squeeze the leg in a little bit more.

3 Lying hamstring

Lying on your back, keep one leg straight and on the floor. Take hold of the other leg behind the knee and, keeping it as straight as feels comfortable, draw the knee towards your face. It can help to use a towel around your foot.

4 Rotational lower back

Lying on your back, keep one leg straight and bend the other and cross it over the straight leg at the knee. Keeping your shoulders square and on the floor, drop the bent knee towards the floor, rotating the lower back. Look over your shoulder in the opposite direction to the rotation.

5 Glute stretch

Lying on your back, bend one knee and keep that foot on the floor. Cross the ankle of the other leg over the knee of the bent leg and take hold of the bent leg behind the knee or on the shin. Pull the knee towards your face while at the same time pushing your tailbone towards the floor. You should feel a pretty intense stretch in your backside.

6 Sit and reach

Sitting up straight, have both legs straight out in front of you and start bending forwards at the waist. Either hold behind your calves or your toes if you can reach. Again, you can use a towel if you need to. Try to keep your chest up.

7 Upper back / shoulders

Either sitting or standing, interlock your fingers and push them away from you. Feel a stretch across your upper back/shoulders but avoid ‘turtling’ your shoulders to your ears.

8 Neck (chin to chest and looking to the sky)

Keeping your shoulders relaxed, drop your chin to your chest and feel a stretch in the back of your neck. Hold this position for a while and then look up and back to stretch out the front of the neck.

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