Note the title of this piece “Why Stretching May Help You.” Each cyclist is an experiment of one with different goals, and different strengths and weaknesses. That’s what makes coaching interesting!
As a coach I look holistically at all the variables that will help a cyclist reach that person’s goals. I stay current on the latest research, but I also interpret that research carefully to see if it is or is not applicable to a specific client.
My client Jay’s areas to work on are different from Ellen’s. Jay’s goal is an age-group medal in the time trial. Ellen’s goal is to complete a century. Jay doesn’t even come close to touching his toes. If he were more flexible, then he could ride with a flatter back, be more aerodynamic and go faster. Ellen can put her palms on the floor and stretching isn’t necessary for her performance, but she has a weak core, so core strength exercises are important.
My oldest daughter is a resident at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. She’s taught me to interpret experimental results carefully to see if the claimed result is a) valid and b) applicable. A study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) examined claims made by the popular TV M.D. Dr. Oz. The study concluded that only 46% of his recommendations were valid! (BMJ, December, 2014) Just because an expert—including me—tells you something, test it and verify if for yourself.
Scientific Experiments Test Specific Hypotheses
A scientific experiment is designed to test a specific hypothesis. For example, does pre-exercise stretching have any effect on maximum power? A study of elite college runners concluded that both active and passive stretching before sprinting slowed them down. (Journal of Sports Science, May 2005).
What if the experiment is whether riding with a flatter back reduces drag and increases time trial speed? Yes, a flatter back improves aerodynamics and has a positive effect on speed. A flatter back is the result of improved flexibility.
How does this apply to Joe, whose goal is to go as fast as possible? From the first experiment we conclude that he shouldn’t stretch before a hard training session or race. From the second experiment we conclude that he should stretch almost daily at some other time to improve his flexibility and performance.
If you do a hard ride to build power or speed, then you suffer micro-tears in your muscles, and stretching won’t help to repair these tears. Does this mean that stretching should never be part of a recovery program? Ellen is training for endurance, and riding at a conversational pace she does little muscle damage. She is stiff the day after her long ride, and stretching will relieve the stiffness so that she a) feels better, and b) can resume training sooner. For more information on stretching and recovery see my eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance.
In most cases stretching helps my clients. Here’s how:
More Power. One of the reasons that Fabian Cancellera was so fast was because of his flexibility (which is partially hereditary). He can place his hands flat on the floor behind his heels! Because of his flexibility he can rotate his pelvis farther forward when time trialing. This allows him to use his gluteals more (big butt muscles) to get more power. Even if you don’t race, making better use of your glutes will make you a better climber, for example.
More aerodynamic. Only two of my clients (one is 74 years old!) time trial, but all of my clients ride in the wind. Greater flexibility improves their ability to stay in the drops.
More on-the-bike comfort. Most of my clients are endurance riders. In their events they ride against the clock and the clock doesn’t stop when they’re off the bike. Improved comfort means less time off the bike. Try this experiment: Stand bent over about 45 degrees with your hands on a table and with your back arched just a little. Lift your head to see ahead and note how much you use your neck muscles. Now flatten your back and notice how your head rises and visibility improves without muscle fatigue!
Relieve ride discomfort. One of our last warm days in Colorado I climbed for three hours up a canyon. My back got tighter and the last half-hour my glutes were screaming. At home I do the cat stretch on my hands and knees, alternating arching the back and then pushing my stomach down to bend the back the other way. Starting back down the canyon I did the same stretch on the bike (always looking ahead!) and, other than those pesky glutes, had a pain-free, enjoyable ride home.
Faster return to training. After dinner while watching TV I stretched for about 10 minutes, paying particular attention to my glutes. The next day my glutes had loosened up enough that I could ride again with pleasure.
Wait a minute, you say. Research shows that stretching doesn’t lengthen muscles or tendons. How can it possibly improve flexibility?
Try this experiment: stand, stretch your arms overhead and interweave your fingers so that your palms are facing the ceiling. Slowly bend at the waist, moving your hands toward your toes. Just stretch until it feels tight, not until it starts to hurt. Hang there for a count of 10, then straighten back up. Do this a half-dozen times.
Are your hands getting closer to the floor? The first time you bent over you went as far as your normal range of motion, but your muscles were still partly contracted. Those six repeats reduced how much your muscles were contracted and increased your range of motion.
Stretching also helps:
Restore range of motion. When you ride, your feet make circles, with your legs going through a limited range of motion, neither fully extending (except when climbing out of the saddle) nor fully flexing. As a result, your muscles get tight and you lose range of motion. Stretching returns your partially contracted muscle fibers to their normal extension.
Dealing with cramps. Research suggests that muscles that get accustomed to being shorter are more vulnerable to cramping, i.e., muscles that aren’t stretched and are exercised in a shortened position like riding. You can reduce the probability of cramping by stretching regularly. If you cramp, stretch gently to relieve the cramp and then move the affected muscle gently through its range of motion without making it work enough to cramp again. For more information see my eArticle Preventing and Treating Cramps.
Prevent overtraining. Research with Nordic skiers shows that the best indicator of potential overtraining is the skier’s attitude. Is the skier excited about training the next day? Or dreading it?
As reader Neil Taylor suggested in his remarks about stretching, stretching just plain feels good and improves one’s mood! By letting go physically and letting a muscle loosen up, one can also let go mentally, which may reduce anxiety about training. And if you’re not stiff when you roll out of bed, you’re probably more excited about getting on the bike again.
Aid activities of daily living. I’m 65, and most of my clients are in their 50s, 60s and beyond. We have twin goals: to continue to do the sports we love and to continue to live healthy, normal, active lives for as long as possible. The normal condition for most muscles is to be partially contracted. When you are sitting down, your arm and shoulder muscles aren’t at full extension. While writing “Distance Cycling,” I spent too many days and hours working on the computer. My upper body got so tight that I couldn’t reach the pretzels on the top shelf in the kitchen! Stretching helped.
Reduce day-to-day discomfort. When you are sitting, your hip flexors are partially contracted. (They’re the muscles you use to raise your leg.) We all sit too much and, unless stretched, partial contraction becomes the normal position for our hip flexors. This pulls the back out of alignment, resulting in low back pain. You know you need a strong core to hold your pelvis in the proper position. But tight hip flexors and strong core muscles are pulling your pelvis in opposite directions! Both core strength and flexibility are necessary for a healthy back.
Aging gracefully. Falling isn’t graceful! Chronic upper body tightness results in poor posture. Poor posture results in poorer balance. Falls are the number one accident for us older folks!
Part of aging for most people is losing range of motion, another example of “use it or lose it.” The American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing some form of flexibility exercise at least twice a week.
When should you stretch?
The purpose of a warm-up is to raise the temperature of your muscles. Most forms of stretching aren’t active enough to do that and may reduce peak muscle power. Coach Dan Kehlenbach’s Dynamic Flexibility Training for Cyclists does raise the temperature of your muscles and is an effective warm-up, as is moderate-intensity riding.
Why do most pros stretch before a competition? Don’t their trainers know better? They stretch just enough to be sure that they have normal range of motion, and then exercise more vigorously to warm their muscles.
Stretching after you get off the bike will relieve immediate muscle tightness, but won’t prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), the way my glutes felt the day after the hard climb. It it’s convenient, stretch while having a post-ride recovery snack. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry; you can stretch later.
Thinking holistically, the purpose of stretching is to increase flexibility. Since that’s the goal, when you should stretch is pretty flexible (pun intended). In general it’s easier to loosen up your muscles when they’re warm, so stretching later in the day is better than with your first cup of coffee. I know that, but I still usually stretch with my coffee because that’s a convenient time for me. Some is better than none!
How should you stretch?
Many of us remember Bob Anderson’s classic book, “Stretching,” and have an image of sitting on the floor bent forward and holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds. That’s static stretching.
There are many modalities of stretching represented among RBR authors: static stretching, Kehlenbach’s Dynamic Stretching, Alan Bragman’s Active Isolated Stretching, Joe and Maria Kita’s Yoga. Using a hard foam roller on your muscles and massage also relieve tightness and improve flexibility.
Which one is best? Remember the second sentence of this article? “Each cyclist is an experiment of one with different goals, and different strengths and weaknesses.” The answer is: Whichever form of stretching that you like, works best for you, and that you will actually do!
Every one of my clients, if he or she stretches regularly, improves flexibility. For all of the reasons noted above, increasing your flexibility will both make you a better rider and a healthier person.
Learn More About Optimal Recovery For Improved Performance
The pros know that recovery is as important as training. They eat the right recovery foods after racing, get massages and go for easy recovery rides. Brent Bookwalter who currently rides for UCI World Team Mitchelton–Scott advises that if you have a choice between an extra 20 minutes of riding or spending that time recovering use it for recovery. Coach Hughes’ Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains the best recovery nutrition, the value of stretching, describes 5 different stretching techniques and teaches you how to give yourself a massage with your hands or with a hard foam roller (the pillar of pain). He also covers true active recovery, compression garments, icing and using whirlpool or hot tub. The techniques are illustrated with 14 photos.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.