Flexibility is Key to Performance

For most of us who hold down jobs and family commitments, stretching gets placed on the “to do” list that never seems to get done! Oftentimes it’s easy to put off stretching because the gains are relatively small, and long in coming. But stretching plays a crucial role in a carefully constructed training plan by helping prevent injury and improve flexibility. It can increase recovery and circulation, as well as strengthen correct biomechanics in running, biking and swimming.

Chronic strength building and endurance use causes the muscles to become less flexible, which in turn leads to incorrect biomechanics. On a typical ride, your leg muscles contract and relax thousands of times. Eventually, blood flow decreases and chemical waste products build up to the point that pain, tightness and possibly cramping occurs. By taking a stretching break for short bouts of 10 to 20 seconds, you can allow an exchange of fluids to promote recovery and hopefully prevent the onset of cramping.

To improve the overall flexibility of the muscles, however, a longer stretch of 30 seconds to two minutes is warranted. By increasing flexibility, muscular tension is decreased, which allows for greater range of motion of the joints. So what’s the bottom line, you may be thinking? The bottom line is that greater range of motion yields greater stride length, further set-back saddle position on the bike to deliver more power to the pedals and lower handlebar position for greater aerodynamics.

For triathlon and time trialing, where low position is key to aerodynamics and efficiency, the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps and hip rotator muscles must be flexible to allow optimal range of motion. If the pelvis is rotated backwards due to tight hamstrings and adductors, then the back rounds out and the gluteal muscles are less effective. Less effective hip extension leads to loss of power and speed.

Some key details to incorporating flexibility training into your training program:

Stretching after exercise or warm-up has been completed has been proven most effective, not before. This is because the muscle temperature is increased, making it more pliable and receptive to stretching. Frequently stretching, as in daily, will increase muscle flexibility in 6 to 10 weeks.

Holding a static stretching position for 30 seconds to two minutes is the most effective. It’s important to remember to hold the position to elicit a gentle stretch; ballistic stretching (bouncing) actually can cause injury.

It’s important to remember, too, that the effects of starting a stretching program on Sunday will not likely be seen on Tuesday! Different muscles need different times to achieve a stretch, and this is especially true if you are like most athletes I see in my practice. Old patterns are hard to break, but with time and consistency in a training program, change can occur. By stretching a muscle regularly and with a continuous force, the muscle will continue lengthening over time. A stiffer, more contracted muscle will need more force or more time to maintain the stretch. So, for those of us dedicating serious amounts of time in a flexed position over our aero bars, or pounding miles and miles of pavement, that means a daily stretching regimen is crucial to preventing overuse injury, not to mention saving us precious energy and time.

For cycling prowess, be sure to stretch hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals, hip external rotators and abductors, and calves. For runners and cyclists, the hamstrings are notoriously inflexible. Stretching the hamstrings is paramount for reducing knee pain (patellofemoral syndrome), back pain, and hip pain. Stretching the hip abductors (IT band and TFL) prevents patellofemoral syndrome, IT band friction syndrome, and trochanteric bursitis. Stretching the calf (gastrocnemius and soleus) muscles is critical to preventing ankle and foot injuries like plantar fascitis. And don’t forget the neck and shoulders. Spending time tucked in an aero position is fatiguing both physically and mentally. Any of these injuries can be season-enders; a daily stretching regimen, like taking a vitamin, will help keep injury at bay.

Call your coach for exact instructions for your stretching program.