What's the first thing a cat does when it wakes up? It stretches out as far as it can.
Cats instinctively stretch all the time, and for good reason. By keeping muscles loose and limber, a cat is ready to jump at any moment.
While you might not have to chase squirrels up trees, you probably will have to jump out of your saddle to accelerate. Cyclists can learn a thing or two from our feline friends about flexibility, which keeps riding muscles healthy and much more efficient.
But stretching doesn't mean a couple deep-knee bends and a set of jumping jacks, despite what your high school coach might have prescribed.
"Stretching is easy, but when it is done incorrectly, it can actually do more harm than good," writes Bob Anderson in his definitive book, Stretching. "For this reason it is essential to understand the right techniques."
Like any type of training, stretching takes time and patience to achieve results. Unlike racing, it isn't hard to learn stretching basics.
The biggest step is stretching regularly. A regular routine will yield improved flexibility, not too mention that you'll feel less resistance while pedaling, be more comfortable on technical mountain bike sections, feel better while tucked into an aero position, and able to avoid soft-tissue injuries.
More: Improve Your Aero Positioning With These 5 Stretches
When to Stretch
Muscles don't like to be worked out before they're warm, and the same goes for stretching. Just as you wouldn't do a set of interval efforts without a warm-up, don't stretch cold.
Make sure your muscles are warm before you stretch -- that often means riding easily for a few minutes and then stopping to stretch, or doing a quick self-massage before stretching.
The best way to spot a beginner is to watch them stretch before a race or ride when they're still cold. They pull really hard, bobbing as they hold a muscle taut for a scant few seconds. Don't imitate this.
Stretching is a workout for your muscles, not a warm up. The best time for a full stretch is after a ride or workout, not before.
Many people make the mistake of stretching to warm up, but cold muscle stretching is likely to do more damage than good, by producing small tears in the muscles. Any stretching prior to exercise should be very gentle -- your aim is to s-l-o-w-l-y elongate the muscle, not yank it fast.
More: 3 Roadside Stretches for Cyclists
It's easy to pooh-pooh stretching and skip it when you're running late, or only stretch now and then. This is a mistake. Most cycling injuries start out due to tight muscles.
One of the most common, tendonitis, can largely be avoided by maintaining good flexibility. It's too late to start stretching once you've hurt yourself -- the few extra minutes it takes to stretch in comparison to your hours-long ride is well worth the time.
"Stretching is a huge part of staying healthy," writes professional mountain biker phenom Matt Kelly in Velonews.
"My dad's been telling me for years to stretch more, and not listening to him almost made me miss cyclocross world's last year, because my back was strained something I could have prevented with stretching."