Stretching. Yes, I know half of you just went “Ugh!” and felt your ham strings involuntarily tighten. But like anything else that’s hard – sprinting, hill climbing, distance riding, changing a flat – you have to do it if you want to get better at it. Today, I’d like to go over why stretching is important, the various types of stretching, the pros/cons of each, and when they should be done. NOTE: I won’t get into specific stretches, because you can find plenty of examples online, and it would take forever to go over them all.
No More Excuses
I’ve heard all the excuses of why people don’t stretch:
- I’m just not flexible
- I’m tired after a ride
- It always hurts
- It doesn’t help
Poppycock (sorry, was that too strong of a word for so early in an article?). First up, being flexible doesn’t mean you can do the splits. From a kinesthetic sense, it means increasing your natural range of motion, not becoming a Cirque du Soleil performer. Some people are naturally more flexible than others. But ultimately, flexibility is like any other training: if you work on it, you get better.
When you perform a repetitive activity like cycling, you’re engaging your muscle groups in a coordinated fashion over and over – literally tens of thousand of times. As your muscles work, they get tighter, which means they get shorter, pulling on the tendons and decreasing your range of motion. This tightness (fatigue) also prevents your muscles from activating as quickly or completely, reducing your effective power output. Stretching counteracts this by increasing the length of the muscle fibers and (ultimately) relaxing the muscles so they can reach their elongated and most effective states.
Here’s an example: hold a ball in your hand. Place your elbow next to your rib cage and try throwing the ball as far as you can. Won’t get very far, will it. The shorter range of motion and decreased number of muscles interacting bring down the applied power, which in turn brings down the distance the ball goes. Now take the ball and – using your complete arm – let it fly. When your muscles are long and loose, ready to be used, they can contract faster and more fully, giving you much more power.
Since cycling is such a low-impact activity, it’s easy to think “Hey, I don’t need to stretch. I can just warm up on the bike this time, and next time, and so on.” Warming up on the ride is a good idea before hammering away, but it doesn’t replace stretching before and after riding. Just like eating on the bike won’t replace that skipped breakfast, and drinking water on the bike won’t make up for not drinking water any other time of the day.
Types of Stretching
There are lots of types of stretching, but I’ll cover the most common: static, dynamic, and ballistic.
Static: holding a position, usually for about 10-15 seconds (with little benefit beyond 30 seconds). This kind of stretching is designed to increase your range of motion by allowing the muscles to adapt to that elongated position, just like weight lifting allows a muscle to adapt to the resistance of the weight. Over time, your range of motion will increase. NOTE: there is little evidence that holding stretches longer than 30 seconds is any more useful to adaptation than 15 seconds, and can lead to injury if held at that end-of-range position too long.
Pros: Increases overall flexibility (range of motion) and strengthens the counterbalancing muscles. Excellent after cool-down.
Cons: Can lead to injury if your muscles are not properly warmed up or if the stretch is held too long. Some studies show negative performance effects when static stretching is done prior to your activity.
Dynamic: this kind of stretching is where you use controlled movements and gradually increase the speed of those movements, the reach, or both. NOTE: Dynamic and Ballistic stretching ARE NOT THE SAME! Unlike ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching focuses on smooth, controlled movements such as arm swings, leg swings, wrist, neck, and ankle rotations, and torso twists.
Pros: Relaxes the muscles, decreases tension, primes the muscles to engage in an activity, good for both warm-up and cool-down.
Cons: Can lead to injury and/or decreased activity performance if over-done (too aggressive) or performed like ballistic stretching.
Ballistic: the concept behind ballistic stretching is to use the momentum of your moving body or limb to force it beyond its natural range of motion. Typically one would take a static stretch position, and then bounce repeatedly into and out of that position. Though popular among some sports (especially martial arts and gymnastics) and beneficial in its ability to improve dynamic flexibility, there is a high risk of injury associated to this type of stretching (especially for the untrained/uninitiated). This is because you are forcing your body past the natural range of motion, and not allowing enough time for the muscles to fully adapt to that new position. Because of this, I wouldn’t recommend ballistic stretching for cycling.
Pros: Can help dynamic flexibility, which isn’t really something cyclists use a lot of.
Cons: Can easily lead to injury.
So, cross ballistic stretching off your list. Do it now. If you see me bouncing in a stretched position, knock me on my ass. It’ll do about as much good as that kind of stretching for this activity.
Muscles naturally tighten due to many factors, including physical activity, stress, lack of sleep, sitting around (yes, even sitting causes muscles to tighten), etc. It’s a muscle’s job to tighten, after all. But in order for it to be most effective, it should tighten from its longest point all the way to the shortest point, and then relax completely back to that longest point. If your muscle isn’t stretched out – let’s say it’s only 90% relaxed – you’ve lost 10% of your potential power before you even start. Remember: the formula for Work is Force x Distance. If the distance of the muscle is shortened but the force remains the same, your total possible work decreases.
Before you give a hard effort on a ride, dynamic stretching can be very helpful in a couple of ways. First, it’s relaxing. Arms swings and torso twists and stretches of that nature can help you focus on your body and releasing tension, taking your mind off your current event and relieving the stress that may be coming with it. Second, it primes the muscles for movement, getting them ready for those hard efforts without jumping right into the deep-end.
Most of us warm-up on the ride itself (at least, you should, taking the first couple of miles to remind the body of what it’ll be doing before going hard). And stretching muscles is always more effective when the muscles are warmed up. For non-cycling activities, it’s better to include static stretching between your warm-up and your actual activity (dynamic stretching > warm-up > static stretching > activity > dynamic stretching), but since you’re unlikely to dismount your bike in the middle of a ride to stretch, dynamic stretching before the ride will have to do.
Dynamic and Static After
After a ride, about the last thing you want to do is stretch. Your muscles will resist you, because they’re sore, tired, and tight. You want to sit down and eat a recovery sausage-chili cheeseburger, fries, and a small diet coke. You pretty much want to do anything BUT stretch. In that way it’s like a climb at the end of a long ride: it’s the last thing you want to do. But, it’s the thing that’ll make you better.
Use dynamic stretching after a ride while your heart rate drops. This will keep the muscles engaged until you’re ready to do static stretching (after your heart rate comes back down to normal levels). Ever sit still for too long right after a hard ride and then try to move? Sucks, don’t it? Dynamic stretching will allow the muscles to come back down from their tightened states without locking up.
Once you’ve rested some, switch to static stretching to loosen up and relax the muscles. The key here is “relax.” Deep, controlled breathing will really help you get the most out of your stretching. It might feel like pain, but is it really? Pretty sure that Cat 2 climb was more painful. Relax, and remember to breath. Put your mind on that muscle you’re trying to stretch and relax into the position; picture it lengthening. You’re pulling the muscles back out to their natural range, which is where they don’t want to be after contracting over and over.
A good stretching session after a hard effort has been shown to reduce cramping, tightening, and soreness in fatigued muscles. If you don’t stretch, then your muscles will remain tight, and though they do loosen on their own over time, it takes far longer and feels a lot worse. If you have a ride the next day, they will be far less ready to engage than if they were properly stretched post-ride.
So get off your bike, down that smoothie/shake/choco-milk/whatever to start replenishing your glycogen, and stretch for 10-15 minutes. That might seem like a long time, but you were probably on the bike for four hours or more, so really, how long is that?
Big Gains for Little Pains
From personal, anecdotal evidence, I can attest to the effectiveness of stretching. I started incorporating pre- and post-ride stretching a few years ago, and found myself less sore and ready to ride again much sooner. After getting back into martial arts a little more than a year ago – which lead to much more stretching and even daily stretching – those stretching benefits to my cycling increased even more (along with strength and speed).
There is a plethora of info on stretching. I mean, a truly ridiculous amount. And worse, a lot of it is contradictory, especially from one sport to another. That’s because the demands of one sport on the body might be completely different than those of another sport. Like with everything else, start small. Don’t jump right into a split and end up off the bike for the next 3 months. Foot, calf, hamstring, quads, shoulder and next stretches. Neck, wrist, and ankle rolls. Just little things you can start to incorporate before and after a ride. Over time, you’ll notice that you won’t feel as tight from ride to ride, and your muscles will wake up and engage more quickly. Like finding free power; that’s gotta be hard to pass up.