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You know that you’re supposed to stretch. But sometimes, whether you’re late for an appointment or too tired after a long day, stretching is the first thing you skip on your training to-do list. Skipping stretching can hurt more than just your flexibility, however. This activity is vital for many aspects of training, such as recovering postride or decreasing your risk of injury.
We spoke with Jeff Brannigan, M.S., who has worked with Olympic athletes and is the program director at Stretch*d, a stretch therapy studio in New York City, to explain the importance and benefits of stretching, and how it not only improves your riding but also your overall livelihood.
Why should you stretch?
At the base level, stretching helps improve flexibility. If you improve your flexibility, you will see two physical benefits: improved performance and improved recovery.
“Muscles need to be in a certain state in order to perform correctly,” Brannigan tells Runner’s World. “If you’re too tight, your body’s not going to be able to move properly, so you’re going to be more prone to injury and pain.”
There are non-physical benefits to stretching as well. Brannigan says many of his clients come in with discomfort due to a lack of mobility and leave with the feeling of mental stress relief.
“They don’t necessarily realize how much [stretching] can help them relax and decompress,” Brannigan says.
Stretching is especially important in the new normal of remote work. By staying at home, you’re less likely to get up to move around, so you end up sitting at a desk or on your couch all day.
“You’re essentially training your body to become a chair,” Brannigan says.
It’s harder to loosen up after being sedentary than after activity, so adding some small stretches to your workday will make your evening ride much more enjoyable.
What different kinds of stretches are there?
Not every stretch is right for every situation. Depending on your goal—whether you’re warming up for a ride, cooling down after a ride, or loosening up during the day—you should stretch accordingly. Here are the two main types of stretching, along with examples of each.
1. Static Stretching
Static stretches are the traditional old-school methods that everyone is used to, like touching your toes and holding for 30 seconds, Brannigan says. After a ride, when your body is warm, static stretches can help increase range of motion and blood flow, which, in turn, helps with recovery and mental stress.
An example of a static stretch for riders is the wall calf stretch. Stand one to two feet away from a wall, step your right foot forward and place the ball of the foot against the wall while your heel is rooted to the floor. Place your hands on the wall for support. Hold the position for 30 seconds to one minute, then switch feet. By holding the position over time, you'll loosen up the muscle and promote blood flow to the area.
However, static stretches can be harmful to your muscles if done before a ride. Brannigan says to imagine your muscles are like a rubber band. If you pull on the rubber band in one quick motion and hold it, it’ll tear at the edges and damage the elasticity.
2. Dynamic Stretching
The theory behind dynamic stretching is that if you gently pull on that rubber band in short sets, it will gradually lengthen without harming elasticity. You use short, controlled repetitions to gradually loosen your muscles before activity. Often, dynamic stretches will mimic the motion of that specific activity.
An example for a dynamic stretch before your ride is leg swings. Stand perpendicular to a wall, and place your hand against the wall to hold yourself out and swing your inside leg in its natural range of motion forward and backward like a pendulum. A stretch like this promotes the natural motion of your body, therefore warming up the exact muscles you’ll use on your ride without overextending and possibly damaging them.
When should you stretch?
It doesn’t necessarily matter what time of day you stretch, as long as you stretch daily, according to Brannigan.
“What holds people back from doing it is that it seems like a big time commitment,” he says. “But really, if you can carve 5 to 10 minutes out of your daily routine, you can accomplish a lot.”
Regardless of whether you stretch in the morning to wake yourself up or stretch before bed to decompress, it’ll make a big difference.
If you plan on riding that day, you should definitely stretch before and afterward. Dynamic stretching beforehand helps warm your muscles up, reducing the chance of injury. Static stretching afterward promotes recovery and blood flow. It’s not an extraneous activity you can toss aside—it’s a necessary part of your training plan.
What tools are out there to help you stretch?
Luckily, you don’t need any fancy equipment to help you stretch effectively. Brannigan recommends something simple like a strap or stretch band to help you go deeper in your stretches. But if you're looking for something robust that targets specific areas, calf stretchers and hamstring stretchers are out there, too.
What stretches should you add to your daily routine?
Much of your daily stretching routine will depend on your body. Where do you get sore after a ride? Are you sitting at a desk all day? Do you lift weights in the morning, then ride in the evening? Everyone is different, so every routine will be different. Experiment with time of day, types of stretches, and other factors until you find what works best for your body.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Brannigan recommends four Stretch*d stretches that will work for everyone. Follow along with the videos below.
This is a stretch for the abductors (outside of upper leg and hip). It helps take the pressure off your knees and creates more stabilization your hips. It’s great for those with poor hip mobility, low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, and sciatica.
Lie faceup with legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right knee slightly, and pull your right leg across your body. Hold for 2 seconds before returning your right leg to starting position. Repeat 10 times per side. You can use a stretching strap or elastic band for more resistance, looping it around your foot and pulling.
This is a stretch for the lower part of your hamstring. Flexibility in this area will help take the pressure off of your knees and lower back, and is great for those with poor hip mobility, low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, and sciatica.
Lie faceup and raise your right foot up with your right leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Use a stretch strap or resistance band to fully straighten your right leg (or straighten it as far as you can). Hold the stretch for 2 seconds, then return to neutral position, with leg bent at 90 degrees. Repeat 10 times per side.
Stretch*d Squad is a stretch for your quadriceps (front of the upper leg, a.k.a. thigh), a muscle you rely on for most movements. Flexible quads help relieve pressure on your hips and lower back. Try this if you have tight hips, knee pain, low back pain, poor posture, if you do a lot of exercise, or, if you do a lot of sitting.
Lie on your side. Place the foot of your bottom leg in a stretch strap or resistance band to stabilize it. Place your hand around the ankle of your top foot, keep your knee bent and leg parallel with the floor, and bring your top leg back as far as you can using your hand to assist. Hold for 2 seconds, then return to neutral position. Repeat 10 times per side.
Quadratus Lumborum (Deepest Ab Muscle) and Lower Back Stretch
If you have back pain, this stretches the muscles in your lower to mid back and the top of your hip. This stretch is also great for improving posture.
Begin seated with both hands behind head. Twist as far as you can in one direction, then drop your front elbow down toward your closest knee. Hold for 2 seconds, then return to starting position. Repeat 10 times per side.
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