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I have heard rumors that (excessive) stretching can hurt cycling performance. Specifically, stretching one's hamstrings and/or quadriceps supposedly reduces sprinting power. Is there any factual basis for the claim that increased flexibility leads to less power? I would also be interested in evidence for the opposite: that loosening one's muscles leads to an increase in cycling performance.

Note, I am not referring to over-stretching related injuries (like a strain), but rather to the results of long-term, correctly-practiced stretching that leads to increased flexibility.

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If you're not going to pick a single answer (there may not be one) please consider making this community wiki. Great question, BTW! –  Neil Fein Sep 14 '10 at 1:30
    
@neilfein: I'm still hoping for other answers. All of the answers below either give other rumors, or answer a different question, namely "what sorts of stretching should I do, and when?" They don't answer my question about whether a long-term stretching program would slow someone down. tplunket's answer comes closest, by citing a study debunking some of the benefits of stretching (but not showing any detriments, unless I missed it). I don't see how making it CW will improve the answers, even if it's unlikely that the right one will crop up soon. –  kevins Sep 14 '10 at 13:53
    
Questions should be constructed so that they can be answered. Community Wiki exists, to my understanding, when that's not possible, or when there may be multiple correct answers. This way a question isn't left hanging with no single, correct answer. You can also just pick the answer that comes closest to outlining current thought in the area of stretching. If you want to wait a bit, that's fine! –  Neil Fein Sep 14 '10 at 15:51
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@neil Again, I think there is a unique right answer, it just hasn't been given yet. With less than 500 users on this site, that's not too surprising. –  kevins Sep 15 '10 at 15:49
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4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The subject of stretching is controversial and there is ongoing debate within the scientific community. There is actually no absolute answer until there is further research. Here is what current and on-going research indicates as to the question, "Is there any factual basis for the claim that increased flexibility leads to less power?".

  1. Stretching and obtaining flexibility beyond your sport specific optimal range of motion is likely to decrease performance.

  2. Stretching to optimize range of motion is beneficial, if tight muscles are the cause of sub-optimal range of motion.

  3. Stretching may be necessary for individual cyclists in order to optimize aerodynamic positioning and/or to enhance riding comfort.

  4. Stretching to prevent injury is not shown to be beneficial.

  5. The timing of static stretching is shown to influence muscle power and therefore performance.

  6. The benefits and drawbacks of stretching are sport specific.

  7. Benefits of dynamic stretching/warm-up routines are inconclusive at this point.

More interesting studies from PubMed searches:

  • This one: "Overall, the evidence suggests that increasing range of motion beyond function through stretching is not beneficial and can actually cause injury and decrease performance."

  • And another: "...for sports with slow stretch-shortening cycle such as jogging or cycling, there is no scientific data showing a positive effect of stretching." However, negative effects are not showing up other than where one is increasing range of motion beyond what is necessary for a specific sport.

I did some searching on PubMed and other biomedical databases, using the search terms: flexibility, stretching, cycling performance, muscle power, etc, in various combinations.

  • There are no research papers coming up in searches that say a regular stretching program reduces sprinting power.

  • There is research saying that the timing of static stretching influences muscle power. See below.

  • There is also research saying that cycling performance can be enhanced by a flexibility program in cases where flexibility improves range-of-motion and/or cycling position. Such as time trials.

As a cycling and fitness enthusiast I feel compelled to figure this out. Since my last revision I found a recent, well documented book on the subject of stretching. The book is 'Dynamic Stretching' by Mark Kovacs, Phd. (The Phd is in exercise physiology).

The gist is:

Pre-event static stretching - Research shows that it can decrease performance in strength, speed and power activities. Some studies have shown decreases in performance by as much as 30%. (Pre-event meaning within 60 minutes of the event)

Static stretching as part of an ongoing training program - Improves range of motion and flexibility in the major muscles and joints of the body. Does not influence strength, speed or power except as to enhancing range of motion. However, there are performance benefits depending on the specialty of the competitive cyclist. For example, a time trialist needs to achieve and maintain an optimal aero position; a cyclocross competitor needs to get on and off the bike a lot; individual sprinters may need to improve range of motion, etc, etc...

Whew! A huge amount of misinformation and mythology on stretching is available. The book cited is focused on dynamic stretching, however the sections on the science of flexibility are well documented from numerous scholarly sources.

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The first two links are broken, FYI. –  Neil Fein Sep 9 '10 at 4:11
    
@neilfein - Thanks. Fixed. Somehow had errant characters? –  user313 Sep 9 '10 at 7:19
    
I think it's also important to note that you should be warm whenever you do stretching to avoid causing injury. –  Mark Ingram Sep 9 '10 at 11:25
    
@Mark - Yes, warming up is important. An ideal dynamic stretching routine would include warming up. –  user313 Sep 9 '10 at 21:03
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To be anecdotal Mark Cavendish has been known to be distinctly suspicious of stretching because he believes that the tightness of his muscles assists in his ability to sprint. Not at all based on science or anything besides the 'what I am doing is working, so why change it?' mentality. But who are we to argue that? The results speak for themselves!

The debate is on going in terms of the benefits of stretching and performance.

I believe that it has been rather settled that cold stretching, prior to exercise, is at most detrimental to performance and at least pointless. A proper warm up where you cycle (literally I guess) through your various 'systems' is a generally accepted practice. See: protour cyclists before a time trial warming up on trainers, cyclocross racers prior to the race warming up on trainers (especially when we get to december/january/february racing) and so on and so forth.

A warmup that I find useful: pedal easy for 5 mins w/ power at 60% or lower of LT, 3 x 1 min fast pedals (focusing on technique, low power and high cadence) w/ 1 min recovery btw each, ride at an easy endurance pace for 5 minutes and then finish w/ a 5 minute 'blowout' (5 mins starting below LT, meeting LT at 1 min. point and then riding at VO2 max for last 30 seconds). Then you can get into the hard work. I typically do that type of warm up prior to threshold intervals etc...

In terms of stretching after exercise, it has worked for me. A quick scan through training manuals and literature seems to agree that post exercise stretching is of benefit BUT there is also a body of literature that points out that it has never been scientifically PROVEN that stretching post exercise is of benefit. For example:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071358/

My suggestion is that you do what works for you and that you are guided in your stretching by someone who is qualified to give you a stretching and strengthening program. I have often participated in pilates and yoga and find great benefits from a mixture of core strengthening exercises combined w/ lower body stretching. Grab a few books that can be trusted and do as much research as possible. Enroll in some studio based pilates/yoga courses that are run by certified instructors and see how you feel.

http://www.amazon.ca/Weight-Training-Cyclists-Program-Endurance/dp/1934030295/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1284036394&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.ca/Cycling-Anatomy-Shannon-Sovndal/dp/0736075879/ref=pd_sim_b_1

http://www.amazon.ca/Pruitts-Complete-Medical-Guide-Cyclists/dp/1931382808/ref=pd_sim_b_6

At worst you will begin to know your body better and get a feel for when you are straining or pushing beyond what your body can handle. In my experience a cyclist with a good amount of 'body awareness' is less prone to injury than those who just hop on the bike and hammer away.

Hope that helped a bit ...


To deal with the question posed below I thought I would add on. I ran out of space in the comments section.

I think it is because most of us are everyday working joes. Sure we ride way too much and some of us compete. But typically we have to either be on our feet or sitting at the desk, day in day out.

Cycling is incredibly repetitive and puts you in a position much different than that of your everyday 'healthy' posture. It creates muscular imbalances that can affect your pelvic tilt, your mid back, your neck and more. This can affect how you stand, how you sit and how you feel day to day. So for myself, I stretch so that I can feel better walking around, so that I can feel more like a functional human being. I stretch (and more accurately engage in pilates and yoga) as a form of 'cycling rehab' to try and correct those imbalances. As well that is why I cross train much of the year. From all of that I take it to, the better I feel day to day, the better I perform. And in my experience it has paid off in spades.

That said, if your spend 6-8 hours a day on the bike and the rest of the day off of your feet resting, perhaps you would prefer your body to become more oriented towards the position you take on the bike. But for the rest of us ...

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Basically my whole question is about the Mark Cavendish type of thing. I suppose there isn't any scientific evidence to support those beliefs, but then if, as you say, there isn't evidence the other way, why is stretching (after exercise) considered to be generally good? –  kevins Sep 9 '10 at 14:04
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There are a few answers and links on a different SE site: http://answersonfitness.stackexchange.com/questions/744/which-is-more-important-stretching-before-or-stretching-after-exercising

It seems that stretching immediately before exercise can reduce performance, but a long-term strategy of stretching (after warm-up) is beneficial.

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Re Mark Cavendish anecdote, he could be right! I have a very interesting (running) book see: http://www.amazon.com/Runners-World-Body-Exercise-Stronger/dp/1605298611/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287664073&sr=1-1

There's a small but interesting section on Flexibility on page 93, which quotes some research. Basically, my reading of it is that any extra range of motion (over and above a normal range) means that extra work is required to keep you stable and therefore being stiffer could be to your advantage. It also says that training tends to reduce flexibility, so why would running stimulate this adaptation if it reduced performance given that all other adaptations, eg heart muscle growth, is known to enhance performance.

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