There's more to stretching than grabbing your ankle and bending your knee as far as it will go, especially when most riders just do this 30 seconds before the starting gun goes off.
If done properly, a stretching routine can help you recover from injuries and hard workouts, prevent injuries, and even make you a better rider.
What to Do
Here's how. First, if you have chronically tight muscles, say hamstrings like most cyclists, your quad muscles have to work a little harder to overcome the hamstring's desire to contract. It's not much, but if it's built up over an average of 60 pedal RPMs, that adds up to 7,200 instances of this resistance over the course of a two-hour race—for each leg.
You also want a full range of motion out of your muscles so that you can have more power throughout the entire pedal stroke.
Additionally, if tight muscles are suddenly and violently stretched (because you took a digger), many experts say that you'll be more likely to strain or tear the muscle.
And finally, after a hard ride, gentle stretching can increase circulation to help your muscles rid themselves of lactic acid and other metabolic by-products, preventing soreness and stiffness.
You can find many different methods of stretching, and all have claimed benefits. Some methods take longer than others, and some require some assistance. Because there's no agreement on the best way to stretch, it would appear that as long as you don't stretch any of the ways that aren't recommended, you should gain some benefits.
What Not to Do
What's not recommended? First, any stretch that hurts. A stretched muscle should feel like it is being elongated, but it shouldn't be pushed to the point of pain. With this in mind, you need to realize that everyone has different levels of flexibility. Just because your friend can put his leg up over his head, it doesn't mean that you should tear a muscle trying to do the same.
In addition to avoiding stretches that hurt, don't bounce while you stretch. A stretch should be gentle and constant—not ballistic. Not only can ballistic stretching injure your muscles, it will actually make your muscles resist the stretch and become tighter.
Active Isolated Stretching
Of the myriad of stretching methods out there, one that has gotten great results for many athletes is called Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), pioneered by Aaron Mattes, RKT, LMT, of the Braun-Goodlander Rehabilitation & Fitness Center in Florida.
AIS differs from other stretching methods in two ways:
- You contract the opposite muscle that you are stretching
- You hold each stretch for only two seconds, before going back to the starting position and repeating.
With AIS, you stretch each muscle eight to 10 times, going just a little further with each repetition. Without getting too technical, there are sound theories behind these methods, and that's why we're focusing on this method.
To go through a routine that targets the whole body, you could spend up to an hour or more stretching. However, for specific muscle groups, you can do longer routines as part of your training, and shorter stretches pre- and post race.
Before doing any stretches, it helps, of course, to be wearing loose, comfortable clothing, and to be warmed up. About 10 minutes of running, cycling, or other cardiovascular exercise will help get blood flowing to prime your muscles for action.
Start a stretching routine at your extremities and work your way in to your core. Contract the muscle(s) opposite to the one(s) that you are trying to stretch. Gently pull (about one pound of force) on the stretched muscle. Hold the stretch for two seconds and go back to the starting position. Do this eight to10 times and then move on.
If this method doesn't work for you, by all means, try other forms of stretching. You can also try yoga, tai chi, Rolfing and massage to lengthen muscles and improve flexibility. Improved flexibility has been proven to help athletes gain more power, develop better endurance, decrease fatigue and soreness and prevent injuries.
In time, you should reap the same benefits. And with a more flexible body, imagine how high you'll be able raise your arms on the podium. Or at the very least, maybe you'll be able to get your leg over your head.