Proper stretching can make you a faster (and more comfortable) cyclist

Unlike bike racing, it isnt hard to learn stretching basics
Whats 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 doesnt mean a couple of 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 isnt hard to learn stretching basics.

The biggest step is stretching regularly. A regular routine will yield improved flexibility, not too mention that youll 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.

When to stretch
Muscles dont like to be worked out before theyre warm, and the same goes for stretching. Just as you wouldnt do a set of interval efforts without a warm-up, dont 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 theyre still cold. They pull really hard, bobbing as they hold a muscle taut for a scant few seconds. Dont 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.

Avoiding injury
Its easy to pooh-pooh stretching and skip it when youre 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. Its too late to start stretching once youve 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-bike phenom Matt Kelly in VeloNews.

My dads been telling me for years to stretch more, and not listening to him almost made me miss cyclocross worlds last year, because my back was strained ... something I could have prevented with stretching.

While you stretch
Dont let your body take over. Your muscles will naturally take the path of least resistance to deflect away from a stretch.

Even though you might be in good position, a muscle deflection means that you dont get a good stretch on the specific muscles youre trying to work. For example, when you do a simple bent-over hamstring stretch and try to touch the ground with your hands, your knees naturally bend forward, compensating for the stretch youre asking your hamstrings to do.

Some knee bend is OK, but at a point you stop working your hamstrings by allowing your knees to take over and bend out too far.

Your hips are also a major deflection culprit because they have so many ways to rotate.

Example: When you pull your leg back to stretch your quadriceps; dont let your hips push out this dissipates the muscle stretch and does very little for your legs.

Instead, focus on isolating the muscles youre working by maintaining proper alignment and balance.

Youll find that by taking slow, deep breaths, your stretch will be much better.

As you breathe, your muscles will elongate due to the increased oxygen running to them. Its natural to try to hold your breath while you stretch, and it sometimes takes conscious thought to overcome.

Stretch regularly
Youll find that the cumulative affects of stretching add up, just as if you were visiting the weight room or doing hill repeats on a regular basis.

And like the weights, its important to stretch the same muscles more than once. Plan to do three complete sets, with the first an easy warm-up; then gently increase the stretches, holding them deeper and longer on the next two. Youll find that you have more flexibility after the first round.

Consider taking a yoga class for advanced stretching techniques. A class allows you to focus your full attention on stretching (typically for an hour), instead of the typical stretch fast, gotta ride mentality every cyclist is guilty of at one time or another.

Stretching (Shelter Publications) has sold more than 2 million copies in nine languages since it was originally published 1975.

The book organizes stretches into specific sports and muscle groups, which makes it easy to identify new muscle aches that need attention. Anderson also known as the Sultan of Stretch is a Colorado mountain biker.

You can order Stretching at:

Friday: Specific stretches for cyclists

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