By Karen Brems, Masters World Cyclocross Champion
Stretching is one of those things that everyone agrees they should do but when it comes down to actually doing it, they don’t. It’s kind of like flossing, I guess! It has to become a habit. It is difficult to commit to doing anything every day. Trying to do something every other day or every 3 days is much more doable. Stretching falls into this category: even 3 times a week is better than nothing. For me, after 12 years of gymnastics training, I just don’t feel right unless I stretch at least every couple of days (but even I don’t do it every day).
Stretching should be done when muscles are warm. The ideal time is after your ride. My personal experience is that stretching helps recovery. I can’t prove this, but it seems that if I spend 5-10 min. stretching after a hard ride, my legs don’t seize up quite as much 2-3 hours later especially if I have to sit for a long period of time. Of course, if you’re rushing back to work after your ride, this can be difficult. Just remember, anything is better than nothing. If you shower at work, you can bring one of those foam pads used in aerobics classes to stretch on. Another important time to stretch is after your weight workout. If you don’t lift weights and have no time to stretch after your ride, you can develop a 10-15 min. routine at home where you do sit-ups or crunches, pushups and then stretch. You can do this after a hot shower to be looser.
The key to stretching is slow and steady pressure. Bouncing is bad. Hold each position 20-30 sec. and then relax. Repeat 2-3 times. The key muscles to stretch for cycling are quads, hamstrings, gluts and neck. To stretch your hamstrings, the standard “hurdler’s” position stretch works well. To stretch quads, stand up and put one hand on a wall or other surface for balance. Lift one foot behind you and grab it with your other hand and pull your heel toward your butt. Your thighs should be parallel to each other. An advanced version of the quad stretch involves kneeling on one knee - say your left one. Put your right hand on the floor for balance. Grab your left foot with your left hand and slowly pull your heel toward your butt. Your right thigh should be parallel to the floor and your right calf perpendicular to it. To stretch your gluts, lie down on the floor on your back with your knees bent. Cross one leg over the other - say the right one. Your right ankle should be on your left knee with your right knee pointed sideways away from your body. Slowly bring your left knee up toward your chest with the right leg on top of it. To stretch your neck, look straight ahead and tilt your head to one side - say the left. Put your left hand behind your head and pull your head slowly down, keeping the tilt. Do the same thing with your head turned instead of tilted. Neck stretches can also be done in the shower. Of course, all these stretches should be repeated on both sides.
On a related note, you can also add a bit of self-massage to your stretching routine. If you have knots, especially in your neck, shoulders or gluts, you can use a tennis ball to work them out. To work on your gluts, lie down on your side on the floor and put the ball under your hip. Slowly roll your gluts over the ball, stopping and holding on especially tender spots. For your back, neck and shoulders, stand up against a wall and put the ball between you and the wall. Lean against it and roll over the ball.
Nobody has ever proven that stretching prevents injuries. However, everyone agrees that stretching does increase range of motion. Cycling is not a sport that requires a large range of motion, however crashing sometimes does! Also, achieving a low, aerodynamic position on the bike for time trialing or any time you need to go fast on the flats, requires a lot of hip and hamstring flexibility. Since cycling is in a limited range of motion, stretching before a ride probably won’t help you much in terms of warming up. You are better off waiting until after the ride when you are looser and can stretch more effectively.