The truth is that many people don’t stretch at all and this includes many people who exercise regularly. They either don’t understand the value of stretching or they run out of time, usually because stretching is generally performed at the end of your workout. This can be bad news, especially if you don’t cross-train. If you undertake the same workout every time you train or your training focus is very narrow, it is easy to create muscular imbalances that can lead to poor posture and unnecessary injury or pain. If you are keen to improve performance, these problems can also lead to impaired performance, (that’s sporting performance guys!!).
No one likes to acknowledge that we age, but even those who exercise regularly will find that the elasticity of their muscles will reduce as they get older. This might not be of immediate relevance to people preparing for a charity bike ride. However the bike ride can be used a great opportunity to lay down some healthier sensible habits, both for the short and longer term.
If you read some of the many research studies undertaken on stretching, you will soon realise that there is still a lot of debate over the benefits of stretching, when to stretch, how long to stretch and hyper-flexibility (too stretchy). In a large study conducted by the American Military, new recruits were split into two groups; those that stretch before exercise and those that did not. The levels of injury across the groups was largely similar and the suggestion is that your overall fitness and readiness for the exercise you undertake is of more relevance to injury prevention that whether you stretch prior to exercise. Overall flexibility may still have played a significant role in injury prevention along with fitness levels, but a quick stretch before you start to workout is not going to stop you getting injured.
What stretching is best and when should you stretch?
From the above, you may decide that the relative benefits of stretching are not worth all the effort, given that some of the benefit is longer term, however this would be wrong. Stretching can be classified by type; the three main classifications are static, ballistic, dynamic and assisted or (PNF). The two main types of stretching that will be of most relevance to cyclist on the charity bike ride will be static and dynamic.
Dynamic stretches are performed while moving and ideally in a manner that mimics the movement patterns that you are going to perform in your workout. The purpose of this stretch is to warm up the muscles and joints, fire up the brain/muscle communication and gradually flex the muscles and joints through their full range of movement. You will all have watched sportspeople warming up in such a manner prior to a game. The movements are not always graceful, but they are effective.
Dynamic stretches are generally trying to warm up, mobilise and stretch the entire body as a unit. The body when view in this manner is often described as a kinetic chain. Basically the body is linked, so inflexibility in the hips can have an impact on the movements of joints up and down the body such at the knees, ankles and back. You may remember the old school rhyme, the kneebone is connect the the hipbone etc..
As the name suggests, these stretches are performed in a static manner. You move your body into a position where a muscle group or chain in the body is targeted for a stretch. Once in the right position, the stretch would generally be held for upwards of 30 seconds depending on time constraints and the goal.
Previously static stretching was performed after a warm up but before the main bulk of a workout or sport. In many circumstances, this has now been replaced by a dynamic stretch and static stretching is only performed after exercise. An exception to this would be for bodybuilding, where it would be good to stretch between exercises, however you rarely see people doing this! There is evidence that stretching excessively before exercise can weaken muscles and reduced performance!
When you perform a static stretch post exercise, your body should be warm and flexible. The main purpose of the stretch can differ depending on your goal or circumstances but generally it would be to develop improved flexibility, reduce pain and stiffness and speeds up the replenishment of muscle glycogen stores (your energy reserves). Developing flexibility can help cyclists to improve their performance through increased power generation from the thighs and calves and improved cycling posture and aerodynamics, (you can tuck in for effectively and for longer).
Stretches for cyclists
If you are a competitive gymnast, your requirements for stretching are going to be very different from an amateur cyclist! This may seem very obvious, but the point is that every sport or exercise will place slightly different demands on the body and this in turn will effect how you stretch effectively.
For cycling you require flexibility in the calves to prevent cramping and allow good range of movement through the ankle. Range of movement through the ankle will allow improved power generation through the feet and will help you smooth out your pedal stroke.
Your illiotibial band or ITB, stretched from the hip on each side of the body down to the calf. If it is tight, and they generally are, this can increase tension in the ITB and causing it to rub against the knee. As cycling is a very repetitive motion, this movement, over time, can cause inflammation and pain. The ITB is best stretched out using a piece of kit called a foam roller. Don’t be deceived by this innocent looking barrel of foam, it can inflict huge discomfort. I won’t lie, an effective ITB stretch on the foam roller is not often pleasant, but it is very beneficial.
The quads are the muscle at the front and side of your upper legs. They generate huge power when cycling and tight quads can led to reduce firing of these muscles, which means less power, less speed and you get overtaken.. a lot! There are many variations on a quad stretch, but after a spin class it is generally best performed standing, by grasping across the front of one foot at a time and pulling it into the butt, while pushing the same hip forward. Unless you are an illusionist, do one leg at a time!
The hip flexors are located at the front of the hips and connect the pelvis to the femur. Essentially they help lift the thigh up, so exactly what you do when you pull up on the pedal and push the pedal over the top of the motion. If you spend a lot of time seated (so that’s most of the population) then the hip flexors are likely to be tight. The hip flexors are best stretched one side at a time in a kneeling lunge position, where the hips on the stretched side is pressed forward and held.
Tight glutes (your butt) are another of the muscles that affect your ability to maintain and effective aerodynamic position on a long bike ride. Unfortunately stretching these muscles won’t make your saddle any more comfortable and especially not our spin bike saddles! A great stretch for the glutes is a pigeon pose. Trying to describe this stretch would be like commentating on a game of Twister, so my best advice is to simply ask one of our trainers to demonstrate it or put it into Google.
Your hamstrings are located on the rear of the upper leg. Improved hamstring flexibility will help cyclists to get better involvement from the strong glute muscles. They will also help with pelvis position, which in turn will improve your aerodynamic position on the bike.
Flexibility in the calves was addressed at the start of this section, but a good stretch for these muscles is a single heel drop. In a spin room this can be performed by standing with ball of one foot on the frame at the back of the bike and then slowly letting the heel drop to the floor until a good stretch develops. Then swap and perform on the other leg.
Generally these stretches should be held for 30 seconds and performed after each workout. It will take at least six weeks before you will see real improvements in flexibility, so don’t delay. You have seven weeks until Tour de TUI.
Stretching while cycling
This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but tightness and cramp while cycling is painful and does occur. You can perform some simple stretches while on the bike and at worst it may be necessary to dismount and perform some of the stretches described above. The best advice is to adopt a regular stretching routine as part of your regular workout. However when your hamstrings are cramping up 50 miles into your bike ride this is of little use and sounds a little smug.
When you are cycling, try to take regular posture breaks to relieve tension. Move from a tucked in position to a more upright posture. On a climbs, take a few moments out of the saddle to relieve saddle soreness and muscle tension, especially in the legs and low back. If tension builds in the upper body and neck, this can lead to reduced breathing efficiency. Try to relax your grip on the handlebars, but don’t let go, unless you are crossing the finishing line in first position. This will reduce tension in the arms, shoulders and neck.
Good luck and get flexing!