Should cyclists or triathletes stretch if they want to see performance gains?
There are a large number of cyclists and triathletes out there who are burning time (that they don’t have, and should be spending strength training instead) on static stretching, hoping that it boosts their performances:
“I need to get more aero”
“If I just open up my hip flexors I’ll have more power”
The thought behind why we should be (static) stretching is a good one. While it could be useful at specific times, those times are very few and far between, as well as require far less time spent in the actual stretch than many would care to admit.
At the end of 2020 I wrote an article for the TrainingPeaks Blog titled “Is Static Stretching a Waste of Time”. It was deemed a “pretty controversial piece “that did it’s job- It got people to talk about stretching:
- The different kinds of stretching
- Timing of their stretching
- WHY they were stretching
- And to take a good, hard look to determine if their stretching was even getting them their desired outcome.
Spoiler alert- aside from a very small handful of folks who actually (very clearly) fell into the categories of where stretching has been known/proven to help- most were spending MORE time on their stretching over the months/years, but seeing no results in their performances or recovery.
The Curious Case of Gymnasts and Ballerinas (and Yogis)
I don’t remember exactly what or where the feedback was, but at some point someone made the comment:
“Well, yeah? What about ballerinas and dancers?”
Sure, let’s go there, I said, with the following:
They’re (gymnastics and ballet) extreme sports where they have these really extreme ranges of motion, and if you actually talk to ballerinas who went professional, or at a high level, or gymnasts, their bodies are wrecked.
They’re complete messes. Their bodies are a wreck, due in large part to the fact that they’ve pushed their joints and connective tissues to extremes- often times beyond what their bodies can handle. In fact, it’s a part of the culture, and has been for many decades, to stretch them while young, in order to get the “ideal” or “better” mobility.
But let’s stay on point here.
For many who spend a lot of time stretching, essentially what they’re doingis taking some of the feedback from tissues out, but not actually resolving anything. Which is why 20-30 minutes after “stretching their hamstrings to loosen their back” the pain has returned, sometimes worse than before. It’s an endless cycle because the root problem has not been addressed.
You can cut the flower off the dandelion, but until you pull it by the root, it’ll just keep returning, and be even harder to remove.
So when you go and stretch for long periods of time, often you’re stretching the passive tissues such as the joint capsule, at a long term risk to that joint’s health and well being. Mobility, for more mobilities sake, doesn’t help, and in fact, it can hurt. . . a lot.
You can read more about this in the extremely well researched article by Dr. Joel Seedman focused on Yoga.
How Do You Improve Strength & “Balance” At a Joint Without Stretching?
While I do use stretching, there are very, very few times where it’s the best tool for the job.
For example, I have a kid right now, a developmental basketball player, who has a disc bulge, and for him these very specific two stretches are useful- at very specific times,because we know that that helps reset the nucleus and the disc for him. But he’s really only holding those stretches for two breaths or 15 seconds, whichever comes first. That’s the effective dose of stretching is 15 to 20 seconds. We know this from the research as well. Yet the vast majority of folks will hold the stretch for 30-45 seconds, or far longer.
In the Human Vortex Training programs there isn’t a lot of stretching, next to none, actually, but what you do have is a lot of exercises that are paired together which ebb and flow with one another, helping to get better movement.
For example, we may pair Hip Lift March Iso Hold:
Paired with 90-90 hip switches:
So we’re using the entire 360 degree abdominal hoop and then we’re going ahead and we’re going through a more full hip range of motion more passively. So it’s an active or dynamic stretch if you will.
By firing up weaker muscles, and you focus on great postures and joint positions while getting the movement from the right muscles, you are essentially hitting the “reset” button for the body. The body wants to work as efficiently as possible, and to move better. This is one of the reasons why muscles tighten in the first place; Either they’re not being challenged or used for a repeated task, so instead of having to work each time, the body says “Hey, you’re off duty, we’re going to shut you down”. Or, something is going on that is putting the joint at risk for injury.
With that these two items in mind, and thinking about performance, it becomes much easier to understand why stretching doesn’t actually help. If we want to be able to perform better, we both need all the muscles of the body to be able to stiffen and relax in order to be as efficient as possible, and we need each of our joints to be healthy so that the body doesn’t have to compensate for an at-risk joint.
Strength training, when programmed for performance improvements, allows us to check all the boxes and to best balance the repetitive demands placed on the body in your chosen sport.
Practical Applications: Exceptions
Now, if you get off the bike and you feel like you’re jammed up and tight, like after a group ride or race far from home, and you’re going to go sit in a car for 60+ minutes, perhaps either a little bit of static stretching like the classic runner’s stretch where you’re pulling the foot to your glutes to stretch the quads, is acceptable- for 15-30 seconds with good abdominal bracing and appropriate positioning.
Don’t stretch the hamstrings.
Don’t stretch your back because that’s just going to make it worse.
You just spent hours in that position and you’re going to go through and stretch them.
We don’t want to stretch the passive tissues even more, but rather to activate the muscles that have been left in a lengthened position instead.
Static stretching is one tool that can be used in a few very selective settings, however there are many limitations to what it can or cannot do. The vast majority of cyclists and triathletes would do far better to work on strength training activities that help fire up neglected muscles, and strengthen the muscles that don’t get as much work in our chosen sports. Posture, great breathing patterns, and appropriate stiffness throughout the body are paramount in building to better performances and a pain free life.