should cyclists & triathletes static stretch?

Hang around for a bit after a bike race or group ride, and you’re bound to see quite a few folks spending time doing some static stretches. For some, this routine started when they first got into riding “because that’s what the more experienced guys and gals did”, while others report that unless they do these static stretches that they feel stiff and sore later that day, or the next morning.

But is this actually effective?

The science from over the last 25+ years is crystal clear. . .

Since as long as I can remember, there have been athletes doing static stretches before and after sports I’ve played my entire life: From my playing a hockey goalie in middle school and high school, to basketball, cycling, and triathlon the last 20 or so years of my life, static stretching has been a constant. 

 

However there’s a big problem. It doesn’t work to solve the problem!

 

Some of you may be falling out of your chairs right now, or pulling a classic “What!”, but the science behind it is very clear: Static stretching doesn’t work.

 

There are well over 5,000 scientific articles out there looking at the effectiveness of stretching, and upon filtering through 4,500 of them and choosing the best 100, showing that static stretching has, at best, a 4% effect. 

Why Do We Stretch?

Let’s make one thing clear here, I myself am a stretcher. . . I’ve spend much time in my high school days stretching, trying to get more flexible so I could become a better hockey goaltender. I also stretched a lot after my initial hip injury. But it didn’t solve the problem (either in fact, as I don’t have hips built for butterfly style goaltending, lol!).

So why do so many cyclists and triathletes carve out 15, 20, even 30 minutes a few days a WEEK to perform static stretching. . . yet they say they “don’t have time” for strength training, corrective exercises, breathing, meal prep, or getting more sleep?

It has much to do with the dogma (aka just blindly doing something because that’s how it’s been done) surrounding stretching, or the fact that “it makes me feel good” immediately.

This immediate relief is often short lived. 

“Sadly, too many patients with so-called tight hamstrings or sciatic symptoms pursue stretching programs that produce only temporary relief. This relief results from the activation of the stretch reflex in the back extensor muscles, but it typically lasts only about 20 minutes. The pain and stiffness return.”

McGill, Low Back Disorders, p 50

As Dr. McGill states in the relation to back pain and stretching, this is NOT a solution.

 

should cyclists & triathletes static stretch?

What Happens If I Just Stretch

While stretching may provide short-term relief we’re simply putting a cold-patch on it. For those of you who don’t live in the northeast, or where the roads get beat-up during winter snows and the spring freeze-thaw cycle, a cold-patch is where they shovel tarmac mix into a pothole….which only helps it from destroying someone’s car wheel for about a week, after which point the pothole is 2x as big as it was before, and even more of the road is cracking. 

Stretching does the same thing, for the most part: it is ignoring the underlying issues of poor strength somewhere in the movement chain, and just helping you feel better in the moment.

This means more repetitions and more time spent in the poor strength balance and movement patterns, which over time become incredibly hard to re-program, as well as wear down joints due to poor alignment. 

 

The Muscles 3 Jobs In The Body

The muscles of the body have 3 primary jobs, in the following order:

 

  1. To protect a joint from injury
  2. To stabilize a joint while a nearby joint moves
  3. To move a joint

 

When a muscle is tightening, it is usually due to either job #1 or #2 being needed. Stiffness is in fact needed, but in the correct amounts, in order to us to move well, or to express athleticism. 

 

Too much stiffness, and we cannot move as needed; too little, and we’ll be ineffective.

 

Simply performing a static stretch without first digging into WHY, leads us down a bad road.

When is static stretching a good idea?

Don’t get me mistaken, static stretching certainly can play a role in maintaining health and strength, but it’s uses should be short, in small doses, and alongside a movement program (or physical therapy or post-injury program) to help ensure that you’re moving well. 

  • Static Stretching, for up to 15-20 seconds a hold, can be very useful when tied together with a breathing exercise, such as 1 arm lat stretch with breath.
  • If you’ve been stuck in one position for a long period of time, a static stretch WITH firing of the muscle on the opposite side of the joint or alongside the joint, can be a great tool to help return the muscles to their normal resting length.
  • Those who have had poor posture or joint balance over many years and who need to passively stretch a muscle before they can fire it fully, or to allow you to activate and fire the muscle in opposition.

Conclusion

Static stretching should not take a lot of your training time. It should be used sparingly, and in coordination with strength and motor control exercises, to help you develop better strength balance in your body, as well as help you improve motor-control. 

Simply stretching to add flexibility or mobility does very little to help you, and oftentimes opens you up to much larger injuries down the road, as noted above.

If you’d like to read more about this topic, I have a blog post on TrainingPeaks, which you can read HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

References

1.

“Neurogenic pain cannot be stretched away.”

The Sensitive Nervous System , By David Butler (2000)

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2.

“Sadly, too many patients with so-called tight hamstrings or sciatic symptoms pursue stretching programs that produce only temporary relief. This relief results from the activation of the stretch reflex in the back extensor muscles, but it typically lasts only about 20 minutes. The pain and stiffness return.”

McGill, Low Back Disorders, p 50

———————–

3.

The Case for Retiring Flexibility as a Major Component of Physical Fitness- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31845202/

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4.

Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun 8. PubMed #21659901 ❐ Researchers looked at more than 4500 studies before choosing about 100 to look at more carefully. The found “overwhelming evidence” of “no significant effect,” and that is certainly no surprise for anyone who had been watching stretching science over the years.

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5.

Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21735398/

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6.

The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (Meanwhile, it does provide adequate support for the conclusion that stretching is useless

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24100287/

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