Though it pains me greatly to say this, whether you are a newbie, a pro, or a seasoned veteran of the weekend warrior cast, at some point in time you will have realised that mountain biking does have its down sides. It’s not the money on new bikes, that’s replaceable, nor the money on upgrades for said new bike, that’s justifiable, nor is it the battering and excuses we have to go through so that we may then escape to the hills and ride this new bike, that’s worth it. The problem is, the cost of all those many hours of fun on the body. No amount of money or complaining can fix that. Many people bemoan the hardships of running on the body, but at least mankind have evolved to do that, the human species was not designed to sit cramped over on a perch with its legs spinning. The bit where we get hurled into trees, rocks and the ground at great speed probably wasn’t thought into the design process either. Yet for some reason we love this sport, it keeps us smiling and sparks a motivation and enthusiasm for life that no other thing does, so stopping is simply not an option. The solution then, is to care for this badly designed vessel we have been lumbered with. An important part of that process is stretching.
Whilst some research shows that tight muscles can lead to an efficiency of movement through the increased elastic energy speeding up the return of the muscle to its comfortable resting place, the cost of this negates the gains. The long term damage of overly tight muscles from being in a cramped position, using the muscles heavily but only through a limited range of movements causes muscular imbalances and postural changes. Without any particular trauma these issues alone can lead to debilitating pain and discomfort through the hips, knees, lower and upper back. A pain I’m sure we have all felt at some point after a long day out. Tight muscles can also lead to increased risk of injury as the limited flexibility means more chance of a tear or strain when an accident occurs and that muscle is put under stress.
So how can stretching help prevent all these issues. Contrary to popular belief stretching does not stretch the muscles. In an article written for British cycling Phil Burt, lead Physiotherapist to Team GB cycling and consultant Physio to Team Sky explains –
“No amount of acute or short term stretching will lengthen muscles and the only time that muscles do lengthen is when you’re growing or under very sustained long duration, years, worth of stretch loading. What flexibility work does address is a heightened sensitivity in the muscle to ranges of movement beyond those which you experience when sat on your bike or at your desk.”
Click here for more information
By making these movements a regular part of your training and recovery we teach the body to adapt to this way of moving. We then have a wider range of ways we can move without triggering the pain of tightness that restricts us.
Increased flexibility through stretching leads to –
Improved posture on and off the bike
Relaxing your muscles can help relieve stress
Relieve the pain of cramp and knots in muscles
Stretching after exercise increases the blood flow and therefore nutrient supply to the muscles which can aid recovery
In recent years a new school of thought has emerged that argues against stretching. It is now thought that too much prolonged static stretching can lead to hyperflexion. This would actually be detrimental to sports such as running or fast paced team sports such as basketball or football that require quick changes of direction. Other articles argue that research has shown there is simply no point in stretching at all. In the interest of fairness here are a few links to well backed up articles that explore this theory in greater detail.
Click here for Article 1
Click here for Article 2
Click here for Article 3
WHEN TO STRETCH
There are entirely contradicting articles for each viewpoint but the one area in which they all agree is that, contrary to age old belief, static stretching before any form of exercise is detrimental to your performance. Static stretching relaxes the muscles inhibiting their ability to store energy and contract quickly. This decreases joint stability, strength and power which therefore damages your ability to perform at optimal level. It is thought that dynamic stretching due to its continuously moving nature has none of these negatives and is a better way to get the muscles warmed up and firing quicker.
Before a ride – dynamic stretches. After a ride – Static stretches.
The evening after your ride once your home, warm and fed give 15 minutes to going through a few static stretches.
Rest days are a good time to put aside a little more time for working through a wider range of static and dynamic stretches that will help with flexibility and keeping the body straight, balanced and strong. It is these longer sessions that will lead to the many possible benefits listed above.
HOW TO STRETCH
Here is an outline of a few example exercises of each type of stretching to help get you started.
1 – Downward facing dog – click here.
The well-known yoga pose that mimics a stretching dog or an upside down V. Begin on your hands and knees before lifting your bum into the air and back pushing equally through your hands and feet. Allow your head to come between your arms so that your looking back at your own knees, keep your spine straight and press your heels towards the ground but don’t worry if they can’t reach to flat. You should feel the stretch across your shoulders back and hamstrings.
2 – Standing quad stretch – A staple for any cyclist as it’s always the quads that feel the burn the most. For the unbalanced or just plain knackered you may want to hold find a convenient wall or chair to rest a hand on. Stand on one leg and bend the other from the knee to catch the foot behind you. Keep your knee facing towards the floor. To increase the stretch tilt your hips forwards and push your foot into your hand.
3 – Glutes stretch – This can be done standing but is easiest and most relaxing lying down. Bring your knee up towards your chest and wrap your arms around it to pull it closer. You will feel the pull through your bum and up the back of your thighs.
4 – Elevated pigeon stretch – click here
Find an object such as the bed or arm of an armchair and place one leg on it crossed in front of you so that the foot rests on the thigh of the other leg. Slide the leg you are standing on away from you so that you are resting on the folded leg. You should feel the stretch down the quadriceps muscle of your standing leg and the glutes of your folded leg. For a more difficult variation try this on the floor and work to end up in a lying position over your folded leg with your arms straight out in front of you.
5 – Revolved belly pose – click here
Lie flat on your back on the floor with your arms out either side of you. Bend your knees and draw your feet in until they’re approximately 1 foot from your bum. Whilst keeping your shoulders flat on the floor bend from the waist and drop both knees over to one side and relax until they can touch the floor. Turn your head to look down the arm on the opposite side. You should feel a pleasant stretch through your back and down the back of your thighs.
1 – Lunge and twist – There are 2 popular variations to this exercise. Both use the same slow, deep walking lunges to warm up the legs. The twist variation is either with both arms out to the side, twist round staying upright so your arms make a 90° lateral turn or, bending forward from the waist and twisting to reach one arm up overhead and the other to the floor. This should be a slow fluid movement twisting to alternate sides as you walk.
2 – High kick forward and sideways – Stand with an arm resting on something solid swing your leg up in front of you as high as is comfortably possible and back to your side 10 times. Then swing your leg out to the side and back across your body 10 times. Do with both legs either alternately or consecutively whichever is your preference.
3 – Inchworm with back dip – From a standing position bend over and put both hands flat on the floor as close to your feet is possible. Walk your hands forward until you are in the plank position then lower your legs and pelvis to the floor and straighten your arms to bend your back. Hold this for a few seconds. Return to a plank position then walk your feet forwards towards your hands, when they reach as far as your hamstrings will tolerate stand up. Repeat this 5-10 times.
4 – Knee tuck and calf raise – Similar to the static exercise but with an added extra balance and co-ordination challenge added in. Stand on one leg and raise the other to your chest grab with both arms and pull your knee into your chest whilst simultaneously raising yourself up onto your toes. Come down and step forward as you place the leg down then immediately repeat the exercise on the other leg. Keep your movements slow and controlled with a tight core and straight upper body.
5 – Spiderman Crawl – click here
Complicated to explain but pretty much as simple as the self-explanatory title suggests. From a push up position on the floor step your left foot through to the outside of the left hand. Move your right hand forward as far as you can reach then step your right leg through to meet it. At the same time as you move your right foot forward reach forward for the next placement of your left hand. Repeat to crawl across the room like a spiderman!
COMPLIMENTS TO STRETCHING
You cannot possibly have escaped the growing popularity of Yoga and Pilates. From being some hippy thing girls do it is now being taken more seriously as a legitimately good way to take your body through a thorough whole body stretch, improve core stability and strength whilst also learning to control your breathing and focus your thoughts. So much so it is now even being used by top athletes such as;
New Zealand Rugby team
Australian Rugby league team
Ryan Leech professional trials rider, now a Yoga coach
Dylan Sherrard professional free rider
Tracy Moseley, Rachel Atherton and Hannah Barnes professional mountain bikers.
There are tons of good examples online so why not try it out for yourself here is a good example with pictures – click here.
Another valuable accompaniment to your stretching routine is investing in and learning to correctly use a foam roller. Again hugely popular with most professional athletes and yet greatly overlooked by amateurs.
A foam roller is essentially used as a way of self-massaging to relieve the pain of sore muscles and release tension points. The correct term for this is myofascial release. As a mountain biker the greatest benefit will be seen from working on your Quads, Glutes, IT band, Thoracic band and Calves. At first this will feel uncomfortable and slightly awkward but it is a technique you learn and as you feel the tightness ease in your muscles it becomes a pleasurable pain. For more info and examples of the correct technique see this guide from British cycling – click here.
Despite the latest league of doubters and critics stretching still does and no doubt always will have a part to play in any active lifestyle. If for no other reason than when your tight and sore it feels good to stretch out your tired muscle. Watch any animal from a cat or dog to a lion or rabbit and as they get up after a period of rest they stretch, just watching them makes me want to stretch myself. Flexibility from regular stretching increases the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. To me a greater range of motion suggests more possibility of getting that leg out for a save in a crisis or if that fails not getting injured when I crash and limbs flail everywhere. Above all else it takes little time to do, and a limber body feels good so why not give it a try?
So keep in touch and see you out on the trails.
About The Author
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.