A frequent question I receive in my inbox is why I don’t include stretching in my article with 5 Simple Tips for a Better Recovery.
Here is one of the emails I have received recently:
“I have got my own personal experience over 20 years that clearly shows that I recover far quicker when I stretch than when I do not but perhaps that is just my particular physiological make-up?”
It’s clear that it is impossible for me to say what is right and wrong here. If your personal experience is that stretching really helps you (and you really don’t want to change your habits) then there is no need to read further.
So why isn’t stretching a part of my general advice?
First of all, it’s a short article with five practical tips you can use to optimize your recovery after training and cycling races. And these tips are time effective, too. No extra work by implementing these tips in your post-exercise routine.
Stretching your muscles take a while and from a point of time effectiveness, your overall performance would improve more with additional training and/or cool down pedalling.
Secondly, stretching is very undocumented. Actually there has recently been a comprehensive Cochrane review that concluded that there is no evidence that stretching reduce muscle soreness.
Ok, let’s take a look at why this article about effects of stretching is worth a read.
Well, a Cochrane Review is a database of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which summarize and interpret the results of medical research. The Cochrane Library aims to make the results of well-conducted controlled trials readily available and is a key resource in evidence-based medicine (reference: Wikipedia).
In this review the aim was to determine effects of stretching before or after exercise on the development of delayed-onset muscle soreness. Please notice that delayed-onset muscle soreness should be differentiated from the soreness that occurs immediately after exercise due to fatique.
Many riders stretch before or after (or before and after) road cycling. Usually the purpose is to reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness, optimize performance (flexibility) and/or reduce the risk of injury.
So how do you experience delayed-onset muscle soreness? In my younger days when I played badminton, it was almost sure that my legs were painful in the initial days following the first training session each season. It also happened in the first week or so after my first (and probably last…) marathon. My legs were stiff and walking down stairs was a night mare.
But I have almost never experienced this phenomenon following regular cycling training.
Why? Delayed-onset muscle soreness is usually caused by unaccustomed exercise – especially in physical activity that includes eccentric muscle contractions. So that explains why the initial weight lifting sessions always hit your legs like a train (Eccentric muscle contraction happens e.g. during lowering phase of squat or landing phase of running.)
Typically your legs begin to be sore within the first day after severe eccentric muscle work and peaks in intensity at around 48 hours.
Therefore, if you are a dedicated cyclist you will very likely discover this phenomenon if you switch to intensive running from one day to another or if you begin to lift weights. But if you are accustomed to running, e.g. a triathlete, you will not discover delayed onset muscle soreness unless you run at extreme distances.
But what really cause delayed-onset muscle soreness are only partly known
Micro-trauma on the muscle fibres result in local inflammatory activity and that is the most obvious part of the explanation. But there is probably also a neural component involved in this process. I believe this neural component can partly explain why triathletes are able to run without experiencing delayed muscle soreness like cycling-only athletes would.
Some riders stretch before riding as part of their warm-up routine. Most riders stretch after training sessions and cycling races to reduce muscle pain and speed up the recovery process.
There are different ways to stretch muscles:
- Traditional sustained stretch for 15 seconds or more (up to 90 seconds)
- Newer techniques where a strong musle contraction is followed by a short break and then a sustained stretch.
The best available evidence indicates that stretching does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness.
The biggest study included in the Cochrane Review showed a very small reduction (four points out of 100) in muscle soreness 48 hours after exercise. The other 11 studies were not able to provide any support for stretching to prevent sore muscles.
So the conclusion was that stretching does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. And I would say that even if there was a very small pain reduction, like four points out of 100, it is still so small that in a mirror of time effectiveness, instead, you should focus on other parts of your training routine to optimize your performance.
Practical advice about stretching for cyclists
So yes, you can avoid running and weight lifting, and just say no when your friends ask you for help with relocation, gardening etc. And then there is no need to be worried about delayed-onset muscle soreness.
However, there are a few other practices you can benefit from. E.g. many riders experience that stretching (and/or massage) may give a transient relief of soreness IF delayed-onset muscle soreness eventually does occur. Also there may be arguments to implement stretching to reduce risk of injury. I believe very few cyclists should implement stretching just to optimize their cycling performance (only if flexibility limits their performance).
Many riders and triathletes do stretching as a ritual after exercise because they have been doing so for many years.
You may think “I have my own personal experience over 20 years that clearly shows that I recover far quicker when I stretch…”
Here is my advice to you:
If you believe you have a winning training routine: don’t fix it.
Though, the current evidence does not support any positive or negative effect of stretching on risk of injury, performance or well-being.
Finally, I have a little experiment for you to provide more knowledge about stretching: Try stretching your left leg and NOT the right leg after next hard training session. Did you notice any difference?
Please leave your comments and experiences below, thank you.
Reference: Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise (Cochrane Review)
Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ