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 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?”
I can’t say what is right and wrong here. However, if your personal experience is that stretching helps you (and you don’t want to change your habits), 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 the point of time effectiveness, your overall performance would improve more with additional training or cool-down pedalling.
Secondly, stretching is very undocumented. There has recently been a comprehensive Cochrane review that concluded that there is no evidence that stretching reduces muscle soreness.
Ok, let’s look at why this article about the effects of stretching is worth reading.
A Cochrane Review is a database of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that summarize and interpret medical research results. The Cochrane Library aims to make the results of well-conducted controlled trials readily available and is a critical resource in evidence-based medicine (reference: Wikipedia).
This review aimed to determine the 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 immediately after exercise due to fatigue.
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) 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 after my first (and probably last…) marathon. After that, my legs were stiff, and walking downstairs was a nightmare.
But I have rarely 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 the 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 peak 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 fibers results in local inflammatory activity, which is the most prominent explanation. But there is probably also a neural component involved in this process. I believe this neural component can partly explain why triathletes can run without experiencing delayed muscle soreness as cycling-only athletes would.
Some riders stretch before riding as part of their warm-up routine. However, after training sessions and cycling races, most riders stretch to reduce muscle pain and speed up recovery.
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 most extensive study in the Cochrane Review showed a minimal reduction (four points out of 100) in muscle soreness 48 hours after exercise. However, the other 11 studies could not support 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 minimal 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 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 (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 the risk of injury. However, very few cyclists should implement stretching 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 personal experience over 20 years that clearly shows that I recover far quicker when I stretch…”
Here is my advice to you:
Don’t fix it if you believe you have a winning training routine.
The current evidence does not support any positive or negative effect of stretching on the risk of injury, performance, or well-being.
Finally, after the next hard training session, I have a little experiment for you to provide more knowledge about stretching: Try stretching your left leg and NOT the right leg. 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