by Haley Smith
We all know that stretching is important. Stretching has so many important physical health benefits, such as increased flexibility and therefore reduced risk of injury, improved joint mobility, and muscle relaxation. A good stretch at the end of the day, before a workout or during a 10-minute reprieve from the sedentary desk life can do wonders for the body.
Some of you may also be aware of the psychological benefits of stretching. Stretching can help us find a state of internal balance; a state of focus, stillness and relaxation. Stretching can help us to relieve stress, find a grounded headspace and prepare mentally for challenges ahead. Personally, stretching is an integral part of my daily routine. Whether I’m recovering from gut-busting intervals or preparing for a race, stretching has a role to play both mentally and physically.
There are many different ways to stretch. For me, stretching usually plays one of two roles: a recovery aid or a preparation aid. When I’m using stretching to recover, the stretches are usually held for a long time (a minute or more) and get deep into my connective tissue and muscles. When I’m using stretching for preparation, the poses are held for shorter lengths of time (30 seconds or less) and are much gentler. This article will focus on using the latter method of stretching in order to prepare for hard rides, races and other physical pursuits.
This pre-race/workout stretching routine is best done 1 to 2 evenings prior to the event. All of the stretches in this routine should be held for around 30 seconds and should leave you feeling limber – not sore. To accomplish this, the stretches must be gentle. This means don’t go too deep and don’t add any ballistic elements. Many people find that they need a warm up before stretching – if this sounds like you, do these stretches just after your day’s ride. If you opt out of the warm up, just remember that your muscles will be cold – so tread gently.
To start, I recommend some gentle rolling – I call this kind of warm up “surface rolling”. As the name suggests, you want to get your muscles moving without doing too much deep digging. Stick to the major muscle groups and keep it light.
Once you’ve done that, move on to the stretching routine. The following are six stretches (each with a few variations) that I do in order to get my muscles ready for the following day’s work. Before you do this, keep in mind that every body is different. Not everyone will respond well to stretching before an event, so it’s important to go through a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you.
1. Deep lunge with quad stretch
This is a great stretch. It simultaneously opens up the hip flexor and entire front body (if you keep your torso upright). Hold this stretch lightly for 15-30 seconds, then reach behind and grab your foot to get into the quadriceps. Once there, hold that one for an additional 15-30 seconds. Make sure to get both sides.
2. Bent and straight leg downward dog
Downward dog is great. It gets into our hamstrings and both the deep and superficial muscles of our calves. To start, keep the knees slightly bent and move the heels gradually towards the floor – this will get into the deep muscles of your calf, specifically the soleus. As you straighten your legs, the stretch will begin to target your gastrocnemius (the superficial muscle of your calf) and the hamstrings. Go gently here.
3. Seated leg hug
This is one of my favourite glute stretches for before an event, because it’s not too extreme. To go deeper, hug your leg into your chest. You can also give yourself a bit of a twist like you see in the photo to ring out our digestive tract. Two birds, one stone.
4. Upward dog
This is a great one for the front body and it really helps to counteract the negatives of cycling-induced posture. A proper upward dog is done with the legs engaged and knees lifted from the ground, as well as shoulders away from the ears. I would hold this for around 15-20 seconds.
5. Wide-legged side stretch
This one is great – it gets into our adductors (i.e. inner thighs) as well as lengthens our oblique abdominal muscles. Hold for 15-30 seconds on each side.
6. Shoulder opener
This is one of my favourite stretches of all-time. Set up near a doorframe or wall. By rotating your hips, gradually allow your straight arm to open up in the horizontal plane. You should feel the stretch gently across the front of your shoulder and in your pecs. Make sure to tread gently, as most people have much tighter shoulders than they realize.