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Stretching: Length Does Matter

I find it ironic that I am writing an article about stretching and its benefits to cyclists, but not because I don’t feel stretching is beneficial.  Through my athletic career, I have always known the benefits of a good stretching routine.  What is odd is that three months ago, my hands couldn’t drop down past my knees with the old “touch your toes” routine.  I think my muscles were permanently shortened! 

– This article first ran on PEZ in Feb. 2003 –

Whenever someone told me I should be stretching, it went in one ear and out the other.    Now, I stretch twice a day, and anytime I find myself standing around, I put my foot up and stretch out a hamstring or a quad.  I feel like something is missing if I don’t stretch!  What changed??  Simple – I saw the benefits of being more flexible applied to a proper bike fit and how your position on the bike can be determined by your flexibility.  In other words, the more flexible you are, the better able you are to generate more power on the bike.  The more range of motion you have on the bike, especially in the hamstrings, groin, hip flexors, and lower back, the better the bike can be fit to put you in a position to allow more power.   Remember, stretching alone will not allow you to make massive increases in wattage, but as we teach at the camps, it’s the little things that make you a better cyclist, and this is definitely one of those things.  So what are some of the benefits of a good stretching routine?

– Reduce the chance of injury
– Reduce muscle tension and soreness
– More flexibility allows for better positioning on the bike to generate more power, because of increased range of motion.
– Allows more relaxation when doing hard efforts
– Better quality of life over a long period of time.

Keys to remember when stretching:
– Do each stretch a couple times, first, a very light stretch, holding for 15-20 seconds.  Then stretch it again, as it will become a bit easier and hold for up to 30 seconds.
– Focus on the muscle(s) being stretched and relax the rest of your body.  For example, when you stretch the hamstrings, make sure you quads are not tightening up, as this is very common.
– Patience.  This takes time, a lot of time.  You are possibly reversing years of getting tighter and tighter, so this must become a habit.
– No pain.  Stretching should be done with minor tension, no bouncing and no pain.  Again, this takes time and as you progress with the program, you will become more flexible.
– Don’t hold your breath.  Breath deeply. 
– Remember, that some days you will be looser than other, don’t force it.

Here is a simple routine to follow. Of course, I could give you 100 different stretches to follow, but I recommend you purchase what would be considered the bible of stretching – “Stretching” by Bob Anderson (www.stretching.com).  Illustrated and complete, this book is great for beginners and all levels of “stretchers”:

Lower Back – Gently pull your legs toward you evenly.  Alternate by pulling ones side closer than the other.  Also, gently rock yourself back and forth.  This feels great after long rides.

Groin – I love this stretch.  It simulates exactly the movement of being on a bike. You can feel the stretch of the inner groin.  Continue to reach lower and lower as practice this stretch.

Hamstrings – Using a wall/doorway combination, stretch the hamstring while the other leg lays horizontal on the ground.  This is a great stretch because the back remains relaxed and only the hamstring is isolated.  To increase the stretch move closer to the wall. 

Upper Hip & IT Band – With this stretch, concentrate on trying to keep your pelvis level and flat to the ground; alternate legs.

Piriformis – The piriformis is a deep muscle that inserts into the top of the femur (thigh bone) and is used to laterally rotate and stabilize the hip.  It often gets tight with cyclists.  Keep you lower back straight and you can alternate this stretch by rotating yourself by putting your right elbow in front of your left knee and left elbow in front of your right knee.

Hip Flexers – The key here is not to lean forward with your lower back, but to “sink” straight down to stretch the hip flexors.  To do this, I like to position myself in a doorway and use the walls as guides to not lean forward.  Alternate legs, 30 seconds each.  This also stretches the tops of the hamstrings.

Quads – Stretch each quad, but make sure you experience no knee pain.  Keep your leg you are stretching as close to the stance leg as possible.   A lot of times, your IT ban here can be a limiting factor, so as you become more flexible in the IT, this will also improve.

Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.AthletiCamps.com

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