Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cycling Performance Tips - Stretching


With exercise there is microscopic injury to muscle tissue, and the more vigorous the activity or the more it exceeds your level of training, the greater that injury. This injury occurs in muscles which are actively contracting (your quads for example) as well as in muscles being held in a constant state of contraction (isometric) for long periods of time (such as your shoulder muscles on a long ride). Microscopic muscle injury is one of the reasons for why you get sore muscles after a vigorous workout or competition.

This microtrauma will cause the tissue to swell (edema) with an influx of inflammatory cells, and in the healing phase, there can be development of fibrous or scar tissue. During the initial inflammatory phase of this process the muscle responds with a reflex spasm which is
the tightness or knot you can feel.

Stretching or massage (where someone else is stretching the muscle in question for you) can help to relax this muscle spasm and minimize edema with subsequent fibrous tissue formation. And there is some evidence that a muscle that has been fully lengthened (stretched) before activity will contract more forcefully and improve performance.

It is important to stretch only after the muscle to be stretched has been actively warmed up - either with 5 or 10 minutes of exercise or in the post exercise period. There is scientific evidence that this will increase tissue elasticity and ductility, and reduce the frequency of injuries directly related to the stretching itself. Does stretching done after the warmup period decrease the incidence of injury from the subsequent activity? That is unproven at this point, but common sense would suggest that if the muscle edema and spasm are minimized, there should be less stress on the muscle fibers and thus less additional injury.

For cyclists, the most common muscles requiring post exercise stretching or massage are the hamstrings, quadriceps, and shoulder muscles. As an inflamed muscle, or one in spasm, is uncomfortable to pressure, it is easy for you to identify your own areas of overuse.

When massaging a muscle, two approaches can be used. First is to apply pressure on the area of discomfort (the palpable knot) with the muscle in a neutral, relaxed position. The pressure is then moved along the direction of the muscle fibers (remember to massage in the direction of the muscle fibers - the direction of pull of the muscle) to counteract the spasm and "work out" the pain. Over the last few years, there has been increased interest in "active" strecting or massage which means that steady pressure is maintained on the tender area or muscle, and the extremity is actively put through it's range of motion, contracting and moving the muscle beneath the point of pressure. The theory being that this involves the nerve/muscle unit and may retrain the entire motor unit to sustain a decrease in spasm after the massage session has been completed.

What can you do to maximize the benefits of a stretching program?

  1. keep a training diarythat includes notation of muscle soreness that might need extra stretching or massaing later, particularly if there is a trend over several days/weeks.
  2. stretch for long enough - I've heard the recommendation of 2 minutes of active stretching (that means keeping the muscle on stretch tension) for every 15 minutes of vigorous exercise. This was for track competitiors and may be less for those biking many hours a day for their training. But the idea is that you can't overdo on the time devoted to stretching.
  3. be sure to adequately hydrate during your exercise.

For those of you interested in additional web material on stretching, Liam Keever has put together a comprehensive site with a detailedstretching program at Bodymind Resources.


Stiffness or tightness in a muscle are probably related to some mild "spasm" in the muscle fibers along with edema or selling from microtrauma - but when you get a muscle cramp you are seeing spasm at its finest. There is not any single cause of the spontaneous contraction, or cramp, but there are several common scenarios including exercising at a level greater than your training, and water and electrolyte imbalances. Here are a few tips you might consider if you often suffer from cramps.

  1. Train for your event. If you are targeting a long-distance event, incorporate long rides into your training. If you will be doing intervals, train with intervals - and push yourself to the level you will be racing at.
  2. Eat a diet rich in carbohydrates (to minimize the risk of glycogen depeltion in the muscles). Glycogen loading can not only improve performance, but cramps are less likely if you ride moderately an hour or two the day before your target event. And eat during a ride of greater than two hours.
  3. Eat a diet rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium If it is going to be a particularly hot ride (or hot and long) and you will be lsoing significant salt in your perspiration, put a little extra salt on your meals before hand.
  4. Stay adequately hydrated both before and during the event.
  5. Consider medications as a cause. Diuretics especially can predispose to cramps with exercise.


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