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Stretching: The Truth – It’s about flexibility, recovery and preventing injury

Updated for 2013 by Kendra Wenzel, with contributions by Jeremy Nelson.

Because the gains from stretching aren’t always immediately obvious, it’s easy to put off stretching or forget it altogether. But before you put off reading this article, consider this: Stretching can help prevent injury and improve flexibility. For healthy riders, it’s about getting ahead in the game. For injured or ill riders, stretching is training when a normal workout isn’t possible.

A Revolution for Stretching
Taking into account the amount of coasting within a ride, figure that an average cadence is still about 60-85 rpm. This means that on a two-hour ride, each muscle of the legs flexes and releases 7200-10200 times. To visualize what happens to a tight muscle, take your hand and make a fist. As the seconds go by, you’ll notice your hand losing color or blanching. This is due to a lack of blood flow. Eventually chemical waste products build up to the point that pain and, ultimately, cramping will take place.

The tightness in your legs that comes from riding is a reaction to changes in electrolyte and pH levels (increased lactic acid). Short bouts of stretching effectively wring out the muscle and allow for an exchange of fluids. Think of it as giving your muscles an oil change. Stretching each muscle group for several bouts of 10 to 20 seconds will achieve this. This kind of stretching, before and after riding, is particularly helpful for the quads, calves and glutes, preventing muscle soreness and promoting recovery.

While shorter stretching will promote recovery, a longer stretch is needed to improve the overall flexibility of the muscles. Stretching for 30 seconds to two minutes will help tight tissues relax and retain their new flexibility.

Working on flexibility is even more important as you grow older and lose some of your natural limberness. If you’ve ever had your back go out on you, you realize that it’s not the riding that’s hazardous to your back, it’s reaching up to the top shelf, putting the kid in the car seat or getting out of bed the wrong way. Stretching for flexibility can help prevent the seemingly nonsensical back injuries and keep you in the saddle. The variety of stretches and amount of time spent doing them is limited only by your own schedule and patience.

Flexibility and Timed Event Specialization

Any cyclist who needs a low position for improved aerodynamics, including trackies and time-trialists, requires flexibility in the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, and other muscles attaching to the pelvis.

The inclination of the pelvis on the seat is a great determinant of power output. If the low back is flat, a rider is able to use the quadriceps and powerful gluteal muscles more effectively, thus increasing power output. If the pelvis is rotated backwards due to tight hamstrings and adductors, then the back rounds out and the gluteal muscles are less effective. In short, tight hamstrings affect optimal bike position, leading to loss of power and speed.

Also, the more flexible you are, the lower the total energy cost of holding yourself in a flexed position. Finally, since a muscle can only contract as forcefully as its antagonist (opposing muscle) can relax, having relaxed hamstrings allows the quadriceps to contract more quickly than if the hamstrings are tight. In events where hundredths of a second can count, the benefits of flexibility can’t be ignored.

Stretching for Mountain Bikers

For those who climb a lot — particularly mountain-bike racers — flexibility in the muscles attaching to the pelvis also reduces stress to the lower back. We’ve all felt that burning in the back from extended climbing. Regular stretching of the back and the muscles connected to it, along with back-strengthening exercises, should be an integral part of every mountain-bike racer’s program.

Another factor in off-road racing is the beating that the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and feet take. While staying relaxed in all movements on the mountain bike is most helpful for this, there will still be times that hands will cramp from extended braking or the feet will cramp from helping to steer the bike over a rocky descent. Stretching of the smaller muscles of the hands and feet can enhance recovery from these efforts.

And while they remain relatively stationary, muscles that are in constant motion, such as the neck and triceps, are often in a sustained clench and therefore need support and stretching as well.

Getting Started

Late summer and early fall are great times for roadies, mountain bikers and triathletes to begin a stretching program if you aren’t already committed to one — it’s easier to begin a new routine once the racing and training schedule begins to settle down. That means winter or spring for cyclocross racers.Now is the time to look into yoga classes for the fall or find a fitness instructor who can help you pinpoint stretches for your problem areas.

Combine stretching with your weight training or other strength training — it’ll help you get into the habit of stretching at least three times a week. As soon as you finish your ride or other workout, grab your recovery fuel and take a moment to relax while you stretch. Take in the world news, give your dog some love, or just veg.

Stretch only to the point of tension in the muscles, and never bounce. Even five to 10 minutes of key muscle stretching within a busy day can make a difference in your flexibility and recovery.

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