To stretch, or not?
This is probably the most common question I get asked in the summer months when an event that was entered months ago has snuck up on us and is right around the corner: Do I stretch before or after the event or both? Cyclists are not renowned as the most enthusiastic stretchers but with the amount of time we spend in "hunched" positions rapidly increasing, we are open to anything that will help stop any niggles and keep us on our bikes. To begin with, we have to understand what exactly is stretching? Stretching is simply the lengthening and relaxation of muscles. When cycling, we predominately use our quadriceps (front thigh muscles) hamstrings (back thigh muscles) and our calf muscles (lower back of the leg). If these large muscle groups become tight they can pull on the pelvis causing low back pain.
Stretching aims to improve your posture, circulation and a joints to your full range of motion. There is still a debate as to whether stretching improves performance and the jury is still out as to whether it helps to reduce the risk of injury. There has been such contrasting research and thoughts on stretching over the years. The most recent research and empirical evidence suggests that warming up instead of stretching is not only better for performance but also for preventing injury. The theory behind this is when you turn up to an event/ride/race, your muscles are cold, they're not as supple and have less scope to respond to the sudden lengthening required of them for cycling. Let's delve a little deeper into a muscle to find out more about this process....
A sarcomere is a long, fibrous protein and is the basic unit of striated muscle tissue. These fibres slide over one another when a muscle contracts and relaxes and is responsible for individual muscle contractions. The main muscle groups have a larger surface area from the origin to the insertion of a muscle, meaning the distance is greater between the contractile units of the muscle (the sarcomeres). What does this mean in practice? It means that a muscle with reduced elasticity that is suddenly stretched out cannot react to this contraction quick enough, causing temporary weakness and strain. Playing devils advocate and trying to understand how a muscle works in both its contracted and relaxed state poses the question that by not warming up, the body will be more susceptible to injury. So even with conflicting research, from my experience I believe that the human body works better when the muscles are warmed up (before an event/race) and they also respond very well to stretching after.