Stretching, how important is it? It is something that can often be forgotten by cyclists and is what keeps us nimble by improving our range of motion, but does it really prevent injury and improve performance?
What Happens When You Stretch
A stretch is transmitted via connective tissue to elongate the muscle fibres, forming tension like an elastic band. This tension is a neurological trigger which tells the muscle to contract back to its passive position as a safeguard against injury (overstretching)1. After a stretching regime your body slowly adapts. Muscle fibres lengthen and the myofibril split within the muscle2 so your flexibility/range of motion improves.
Evidence does not support the idea that stretching before exercise reduces risk of injury3, rather, flexibility does. Stretching increases flexibility and range of motion to reduce injury by preventing the straining or tearing of a muscle when it is contracted from in a stretched position. So to prevent injury you should stretch to improve flexibility and not necessarily before exercise. In fact, for cycling, evidence suggests that flexibility doesn’t play a role in injury prevention because the movement is all about muscle contractions from relative un-stretched positions. High-intensity sports with stretch-shortening muscle movements, on the other hand, benefit from flexibility to prevent injuries (e.g. football)4 .
There is an idea that by stretching the muscle fibres to release cramps/knots, nutrients can flow through the muscles more easily to improve recovery. Evidence, on the contrary, shows that stretching increases DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)3 and doesn’t improve recovery5. However, where stretching may work for recovery is if it relaxes you. If you take time to relax as you stretch it could switch your body into recovery mode faster or calm you down before going to bed so that you sleep better (Sleep Like a Baby).
Stretching pre-exercise diminishes performance4 and there is a lot of evidence supporting that statement. There is also a theory that flexibility reduces muscle tension in your pedal stroke so there is less elastic force from your muscles acting against you. However, scientific evidence proves this to be false as muscle tension doesn’t change, rather stretching tolerance changes with flexibility6. It has been proven that flexibility can enhance performance, though. Flexibility increases the amount of force a muscle can apply from a stretched position7. This means that in cycling you can put more power out from a stretched muscle so you can sit in a more aero position with the same power.
While the importance of stretching may not be all what people have made it out to be, it still plays a significant role as it keeps us nimble for daily life. It can prevent non-cycling related injuries and, if done after exercise, it will help us comfortably achieve a more aero position on the bike with a positive effect on performance. Try it out for yourself! You may find that you also feel fresher and can do more in life from stretching as your range of movement gradually expands.
1 Magid. A, Law. D.J, 1985, Myofibrils bear most of the resting tension in frog skeletal muscle.
2 Paavo. K, 2003, Strength and Power in Sport, Encyclopedia of Sports Medicin, Volume 3
3 Herbert. R.D, Gabriel. M, 2002, Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review
4 Witvrouw. E, Mahieu. N, Danneels. L, McNair. P, 2004, Stretching and Injury Prevention, Sports Medicine, Volume 34, Issue 7
5 Barnett. A, 2006, Using Recovery Modalities Between Training Sessions In Elite Athletes, Sports Medicine, Volume 36, Issue 9
6 LaRoche. D.P, Connolly. D.A.J, 2006, Effects of Stretching on Passive Muscle Tension and Response to Eccentric Exercise, The American Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 34, Issue 6
7 Worrell. T.W, Smith. T.L, Winegardner. J, 1994, Effect of Hamstring Stretching on Hamstring Muscle Performance, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Volume 20, Issue 3
Note that these are the author’s interpretations and applications of research they have performed.