In today’s toolbox article, I wanted to spend some time focusing on an aspect of our fitness that all too many cyclists neglect: stretching. Since I tend to also neglect that aspect of my fitness, I consulted a good friend of mine, Elise Yanover, who has been a registered physiotherapist in Toronto for the last 29 years to gather some more detailed information.
Why is Stretching Important?
As our muscles perform their duty of flexing or extending joints in our body, they either contract (shorten), or extend (lengthen). Elise mentioned that every muscle in our body performs optimally or most efficiently at a given length, depending on the joint that it acts on. If the muscle becomes either too tight or too loose, the muscle no longer works as efficiently as it should.
When continuing my conversation with Elise about optimal muscle length & efficiency, she referred to cycling as a contracting activity. The primary motion responsible for pushing you forward on your bike is knee extension, performed by the quadriceps muscles. Over the course of a bike ride, your quads perform hundreds or thousands of contractions over the course of many kilometers, which causes your quads to shorten in length. At the end of the ride, those muscles need to be lengthened again with some stretching! Therefore, stretching does not necessarily make you a stronger rider by increasing your FTP; rather, stretching aids in the recovery process & helps prepare you for your next ride.
How Much Do I Need to Stretch?
As I chatted with Elise on the phone, I asked her how much stretching someone who doesn’t ever normally stretch – like myself – should be doing after a ride. Fortunately, her answer was “not that much!” There seems to be some misconception about how long stretching needs to be. You do not need to spend 45 min of your day laying down and stretching every muscle in your body. In fact, Elise mentions that her stretch routing is often as short as 5 min while she patiently waits for her ride to upload to Strava. Even better, the entire routine can be done while standing!
However, she was quick to point out that exactly how much you need to stretch will depend on a number of factors. People who have more sedentary jobs may find a little extra stretching helpful, compared to people with more active jobs.
Simple Stretching Routine
Immediately following that line of thinking, I asked Elise what are the essential stretches to start with, especially for those who don’t have a proper stretching routine in place. Since the goal of stretching is to re-lengthen muscles that have been shortened from kilometers of riding, then the stretching routine should cover the key muscle groups used while cycling.
Her list of essential stretches that can be done in approximately five minutes includes the Quads, Hamstrings, Hip Flexors, Calves, & IT Band. I’ll quickly demonstrate the routine below:
- Stand on one leg. If you need support, hold onto something solid for support, such as a wall or railing.
- Bend your right knee and bring your heel toward your buttock and reach for your ankle with your hand.
- Stand up straight and pull in your abdominal muscles. Try to keep your knees next to each other. Relax your shoulders. As you hold your leg in the bent position you should feel the stretch along the front of your thigh and hip.
- Breathe deeply and hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, release and repeat on the left leg, this time holding your ankle with your right hand.
- Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms overhead.
- Next, bend forward from the hips, reaching your hands toward the floor. Your hips should be stacked over your ankles. Touching your toes is not the goal of this stretch. Only go as far as you can without overly bending your knees – some slight bending is okay, but don’t bend them to go lower – doing so will prevent your hamstrings from stretching!
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds before bringing your upper body back to a standing position.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and place your hands on your hips.
- Step your right foot back about a foot and a half.
- Bend your left knee slightly, raise your right heel off the ground, and lean forward several inches.
- In this position, squeeze your right glute. You should feel a stretch along the top of your thigh. Hold for about 30 seconds.
- Switch sides and repeat, this time placing your left leg back.
- Stand in a staggered stance next to a wall. Place one foot close to the wall and one about a foot back. You can also place your hands on the wall if you need extra support..
- Move your toes up against the wall and keep your heel on the floor. Move your weight towards your front foot – you should feel the stretch in the lower part of the front leg.
- Hold the stretch for about 30s, then switch sides and repeat the stretch.
- From a standing position, cross your right leg over in front of your left about shoulder-width apart. Press firmly into both feet.
- Next, lean to your right side as far as your body will allow. You should feel the stretch in your knee and outer hip. Place your left hand on a wall for added stability, if needed.
- Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
If you are looking to improve your recovery as well as make you a more well-rounded athlete, you should certainly include stretching as part of your post-ride routine. Hopefully this article helps outline why stretching is important to re-lengthen your muscles after a ride and leave you feeling more prepared for the next one. That’s all for this month – stay safe, ride fast, and I’ll see you next month!