Stretching for Cycling

Abstract: Stretching can help--but it can also hurt. Stretching regularly will help you avoid tight muscles and injuries. But it can be a two-edged sword. The wrong type of stretching can lead to injuries.


Cycling has many healthful benefits. But, as with any exercise activity, it is not a complete exercise in itself. When you cycle, the muscles you move over and over to pedal the bike become stronger, tighter, and shorter. Often described as a "mid-range" activity, cycling involves a limited, repeated motion. During each stride, the leg is never fully straightened (locked) or bent to its fullest, so the muscles are never fully contracted or extended. This causes tightness, which contributes to any number of overuse syndromes: pain in the lower back, hamstrings muscles and knees. How does stretching help?

Stretching helps you adapt to the rigors of cycling. Cyclists who put in long hours on the bike are especially prone to what we call "muscular rigormortis." Unfortunately, one of the curses of hard riding is gradual loss of muscle elasticity and an overall decrease in joint flexibility. Stretching, which requires no special skill, enables cyclists to make their muscles and joints more adaptable to the rigors of cycling.

To improve performance. Since stretching improves flexibility and increases range of motion, well-exercised muscles and joints will undergo less severe stress in competitive conditions. The longer muscles and joints can perform without failure under stress, the longer you can cycle at your optimum speed. Workload. Muscles will last longer during activity before tightening up if prestretched correctly. Stretching reduces muscle soreness and stiffness during periods of intense workouts.

Recovery

The stiffness and tightness that are frequently felt after a ride can be brought under control, and even eliminated, with proper stretching after a workout. Stretching keeps the body fine tuned and hastens recovery.

To prevent injuries. Stretching is a form of preventive medicine, and all of the points mentioned thus far - for reducing stress, improving flexibility, improving flexibility, adding in recovery - serve to prevent breakdown of your system, which manifests in discomfort or pain.

More About Performance

In his book "Road Racing," Bernard Hinault, five time winner of the Tour de France, speaks to the benefits of a regular stretching in a cycling program. "Stretching just before competition, like a time trial, prepares the muscles for the effort by making them more supple and increasing their tone. The alternating pattern of contraction-relaxation is more completely guaranteed, enhancing your effectiveness if you must ride fast and gives you a more efficient style if you must ride for a long time."

Hinault further explains that "you will be able to raise your saddle and still be able to pedal with suppleness and retain good speed. You'll be able to do this because of an improved decontraction of the opposing muscles with each pedal revolution. The hamstrings, which instinctively attempt to hold back the descending leg, reap a great benefit from stretching. It is their imperfect decontraction that prevents you from raising your saddle enough." Raising your saddle will allow you to use a greater range of your leg muscles and puts less strain on your spinal column and lower back.

What's the Best Way?

You most likely know the answer to this question, and you know that "bouncing" isn't it.

One of the best ways to stretch is with static stretching, in which you stretch each muscle group slowly and gently, until a mild amount of tightness (not pain) is felt in the muscle. Then maintain this position for about 30 seconds, or until the muscle begins to relax. As you hold the stretch, the feeling tension should diminish. If it doesn't, just ease off slightly into a more comfortable stretch.

After holding the easy stretch, move a fraction of an inch farther into the stretch until you feel mild tension again. This, the developmental stretch, should be held for another 5-30 seconds. This feeling of stretch tension should also slightly diminish or stay the same. If tension increases or becomes painful, you are over-stretching. Ease off a bit to a comfortable stretch. The developmental stretch reduces tension and will safely increase flexibility. Repeating this process a few times for each muscle group will give the best results.

The rapid, jerky movements involved in ballistic (bouncing) stretches are ineffective and can lead to injury. As you bounce, the muscle responds by contracting, to protect itself from over-stretching. Thus, an internal tension develops in the muscles and prevents it from being fully stretched.

Also, bouncing may cause tiny tears in the muscle, leaving scar tissue behind, which can make the muscles less flexible than they were before.

When You Should Stretch

Before and after cycling. I suggest that you experiment with stretching for 5-10 minutes before and after you ride. The areas of your body that tend to tire first are the ones that you should pay particular attention to in preparation for the ride. Bob Anderson's book, "Stretching," contains many excellent stretching routines for cycling.

Hold only the proper tension in the muscles that feels good to you. The key to stretching is to be relaxed while you concentrate on the areas being stretched. Your breathing should be slow, deep and rhythmical. Don't worry about how far you stretch. Stretch relaxed and limberness will become just one of the many by-products of regular stretching.

Stretching will start the blood circulating through the muscles and warm them up to the tasks ahead. Once on the bike, though, don't forget to put in a good warm-up before any hard efforts.

During the ride. On numerous occasions after sitting in the saddle for several hours specific parts of you body will begin to get tight and tired. On any ride, if you are losing efficiency, slow down and do several stretches to help your body to rest and stretch out the tightness. Make sure you practice these on the bike stretches at a safe speed and with no other cyclists around before you attempt them while riding in a group.

At other times. Two-to-five minutes of stretching, several times a day, is excellent for keeping the muscles fined-tuned and tension free. Stretching is not something to do just as part of a workout. If the timing of your workout doesn't allow for stretching - say you've got to squeeze your cycling into a tight noon hour - then any other time of the day is fine. At home you can stretch while watching TV. This is a particularly good time to do leg and back stretches and to massage and elevate your legs to reduce the feeling of tightness and fatigue after a hard ride. Stretching in the car or at the office are other occasions to consider as stretching times.

Times Not to Stretch

There are times when stretching can do more harm than good. For example, when:

Benefits of Stretching

It will take you a little over 8 to 10 minutes to do the stretching exercises listed above before and after your ride. That is just 10 minutes to keep injuries and tightness to minimum. As we stretch, we learn about our bodies and how they move and feel. And we learn how to take care of them to prevent injury and excess tension. Stretching is a great form of physical education.