Bodies sprawled all over the carpeted floor in strange positions that resembled contortionists. While seated, noses were to the floor just inside the knee caps, others were spread -eagled into splits. Backs were bent in ways that were painful to witness. On-lookers cringed at the very sight before their eyes.
What kind of scene did we just walk on to?! Backstage on America's Got Talent? No - instead it is a stretch session at a local gymnastics center. Amazing what these kids' bodies can do during their pre-work out stretching block. Which brings me to this question: Do cyclists need to stretch before or after a ride?
This topic has been argued over for decades. Studies have proven one school of thought to be better than the other. The next year it has been disproved by another research group. Today let's take a look at the difference in stretching, warming up and flexibility training. All are helpful - and necessary- for superb performance. The trick is when to do what.
Warm It Up
Pre-exercise stretching has been proven to do little good for the cycling performance that is about to ensue. Rather a correct warm up is what is required for optimal effectiveness on a ride. The difference? Stretching involves range of motion and a proper warm up does not. Limbering the joints with low-impact movements such as marching, side stepping, heel kicks, etc. is recommended. The purpose is to increase circulation, warm the joints / muscles and thus prepare the body to perform. A good warm up is 2-5 minutes long and should only minimally elevate the heart rate. This can be followed by a series of muscle group specific static (non-moving) stretches held for 10-15 seconds each. Target your riding muscles: quadriceps, calves, glutes, traps, hamstrings. Remember: this is not to increase flexibility but simply to get the body ready for the demands you are about to place on it. There should be no discomfort in these stretches at all; keep them gentle.
Cool It Down
The ride is over and your legs are now screaming at you. You are worn out and ready to eat, shower and rest (not necessarily in that order!) However, just as your metabolism has a short window to feed depleted glycogen stores, your joints and muscles are primed and ready for some much-needed stretching. Before you dive into a hard core stretch session, simply repeat the pre-ride stretches that you did but hold them a bit longer (up to 30 seconds). Again, there should be no pain or discomfort in your cool down stretching.
Now is where the stretching is a bit more intense. Not to confuse it with simplistic pre or post-ride stretches, these suckers are going to make a difference in your overall fitness level, performance on the bike, posture, alignment and overall range of motion. This particular set of stretches can be done after your recovery meal and shower. They will help relax you for your nap! Target muscle groups are: hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, lower back, hips, trapezius and shoulders. Hold each stretch for 60 seconds or for 8 deep breaths. Tense muscles can not stretch effectively so be sure to relax. This site provides photos and explanations for these groups.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is a newer term for specific stretching that requires a partner. While they may be the "next new thing to do", I advise that these kinds of deep and very intense stretches only be carried out with caution and / or with a trained professional. They can be very uncomfortable and even painful -causing injury- if not done properly. Live Strong has a nice description of many of these.
So loosen up! Get into the routine of a warm up before your ride and incorporate some flexibility training for post-ride. You will notice that you are more comfortable during your rides and that your riding will indeed improve.
Suggested More Stretches