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The Art & Science of Stretching

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Manual for Speed Manual #1, Stretching was made in partnership with Ben Chaddock, then of Team Exergy, at the team’s 2012 Sponsor/Team Camp in Boise, Idaho. The following stretching routine and explanation is in Ben’s own words, recorded at the time of the demonstration. Illustration by Ray Masaki.



My profession (Professional Road Racing) requires that I ride my bike nearly every day of the year except for three weeks in October which I call my “Off Season.” Because my training/racing schedule leaves no time to rest-up or complete a physiotherapy routine if, for example, I pull a muscle, long-standing muscular and range-of-motion imbalances must be dealt with proactively. There is a big assumption that once you ‘turn pro’ daily massage is the norm. However this is often not the case, which means most of us have to take daily recovery into our own hands.

If you don’t like to stretch, ice bath or self massage, you’d better find another job because Professional Road Racing requires a great deal of time and commitment in regards to managing your own health and well-being; of course getting lazy, complacent and injured as the season progresses is also an option.

Good stretching habits go a long way.

  1. They provide an opportunity to check-in with your body – what is tight, what needs attention, etc.
  2. Stretching helps maintain fascia-sheath health and decreases the likelihood of pulled muscles. Regular care and attention also promotes muscular elasticity for greater recruitment, power and ultimately performance.
  3. Most importantly, a ‘recovery’ routine should include stretching and massage as it increases the blood flow to the damaged area, thereby increasing the speed at which the body can rebuild exercise-induced micro-muscle fiber tears and flush out toxins.

Here are some good stretching habits.

Space is critical in my travel bag so each item must meet my rigorous standards: small and effective. My current stretching kit rolls all into one 2” diameter PVC pipe used for ‘rolling’, which conveniently fits within my travel suitcase. Inside the pipe, I carry The Original Marathon Stick that I bought back in 2000 for $50 before Oprah made them popular, 3 feet of yellow lightweight tubing which I use for a variety of stretches (especially the hamstring), a baseball (harder than a tennis ball!) which is an important tool for the muscles surrounding the hips and shoulder blades, a neck tie (just added to the mix this year!) to loop and hook onto my foot for quadriceps stretches, and organic coconut oil-based massage oils.
Warm-up is important for any stretching routine. Dynamic movements, a brisk walk, walking up stairs or going out for a spin are all adequate warm-ups. The stick is also adequate. I spend 5-8 minutes covering all the major muscle groups. Quadriceps, calves, arches, buttocks, lower back, upper back, and arms. Press hard to get the blood flowing. If it hurts to even touch your legs with light pressure, then your legs have been severely damaged from a hard effort or they are extremely tight and knotted. Either way, you have some work ahead of you so bite down on a wooden spoon and get started. There are some who suggest tapering the pressure of your ‘sticking’ away from your heart during warm-up and vice versa for cool down; however, I disagree. It is far more important to just get blood flow to the area via adequate pressure than over-thinking the details. So apply strong amounts of pressure and smoothly roll ‘The Stick’ over your muscles.
Since it sucks the most and is my largest area of concern due to muscular imbalances (my Vastus lateralis is much larger than my Vastus medialis), I move straight onto the roller. I target the fascia that runs along the outside of the quadriceps, below the IT band. If this fascia is smooth, my bursa sacs are happy and I can pedal hard. Move slowly! The more time you can spend on the roller the better. It may be very painful to start but the pain will subside in the coming days. Try to spend 5-10 minutes on each leg, working your way slowly up and down the quadriceps, rotating from the outside to the top as shown above. The effect is similar to that of the stick, yet the pressure is much higher due to the weight of your body. In order to moderate the pressure, distribute your weight off your working “roller” leg with either your arms or the non-working leg. The roller is also a good tool for the adductors and buttocks. Of course avoid the bony ends of your hips. KEY: Move slowly, or stop entirely until the pressure point releases (Caution: this can be extremely painful).
This is called THE ATOM BOMB. By adding the use of the business tie this season, I can conduct this exercise in any location, reducing my need to find a ledge/bed/couch/soft surface of the appropriate height to rest my foot on. The focus here is 90 degrees. Every bone angle is 90 degrees, femur to tibia, femur perpendicular to the floor, foot parallel to femur and hips square. It’s hip to be square...right? This stretch also includes a large component of Proprioneuromuscular Facilitation (PNF); a resistance against the stretch over specific intervals of time to help relax the muscle, increasing the stretch, blood flow and recovery to the damaged muscle group. Once in position, rotate hips forward and up (anti-pelvic tilt) and tighten the buttock. When stretching the right leg as pictured above, tighten the right cheek. You can drop your right arm down and across your buttock to help monitor its activation throughout the entirety of the stretch – note, it is hard to stay focused and maintain tightness. Every thirty seconds, resist the stretch by pushing into the tie or chair while attempting to straighten the right leg. Complete 5-6 seconds of resistance. As you relax, the leg should achieve a new level of stretch; however be sure to maintain buttock tightness during this time. Complete this cycle 4-8 times, spending 3-8 minutes per leg. If I have only 10 minutes to stretch, I will forgo all other stretches and complete 5 minutes of the Atom Bomb per leg.
My nemesis, the adductor stretch. Even back in my ski racing days this stretch was highly feared amongst my teammates and I. I don’t know what it is, it just feels like it is going to hurt a lot; fortunately with regular stretching one can make great strides forward with this stretch. To get into this stretch, stagger your legs such that you are going to complete a traditional hip flexor stretch (right foot planted at 90 degrees in front of the body, left knee grounded with left foot trailing behind the body). Move your left leg 12 inches to the right and leaving your right foot in it’s place, shift your body rightward and collapse down onto your right buttock. SUPPORT YOURSELF with your arms. The point is NOT to touch the ground with your buttock. Instead focus on maintaining square hips and an upright upper body position to help moderate the stretch. Incorporate PNF elements by pushing the outside (grounded) side of your right foot into the ground and pushing (with your right hand) down on your right knee. However, despite these PNF contractions your anti- pelvic tilt and left buttocks should remain engaged. If you are advanced in this range of motion, try adding a towel under the shin as pictured, or elevate your right leg onto a low couch or bed.
The classic hamstring stretch. It is common for cyclists to have flexible lower backs and as a result touching one’s toes isn’t always the largest of challenges; however the ability to touch one’s toes isn't always an indication of good hamstring flexibility. Instead focus on maintaining a flatter lower back or upright position in general during the stretch. You can use tubing as seen above to help gain traction. The most important part of this stretch is to tighten your quadriceps; according to the physics of the body if one muscle group is 100% contracted, it’s opposing group will be relaxed, and stretching a relaxed muscle is the only way to properly and safely stretch. To introduce a PNF element, either push your heels into the ground or flex your feet away from your torso. Of course balance is the key so stretching both your hamstrings and quadriceps on a consistent basis is the best proactive solution.
This is a bit extreme. Usually I tend to use the baseball in the hip joint or lie on it while placed around my shoulder blades. When using the baseball for the Vastuc lateralis as shown above, use very small and smooth movements. I am placing a large amount of pressure on my non-working foot and upper body to reduce the body weight placed on the baseball. After I took 3 weeks off the bike in December, I had to use the baseball around my knee to break up the tissue as my fascia did not agree with the combination of alpine skiing and lack of stretching. As a result, I arrived in Tucson, AZ only to be stuck on the couch two days later, bursa sacs inflated and painful. However, within 24 hours of a professional massage to kick start the recovery, followed by 3x5 minutes a day of baseball work, I was back on the bike and preparing for 2012. When used on the hip or shoulders, I will often lie for 5-10 minutes a time and completely zone out, slightly shifting my weight during the duration of the exercise to target as many of the layers and orientations of muscle and fascia as possible. The baseball on my hips and shoulders are my favourite post-travel exercise.
This is a weird one and really more of a test than a stretch. Ideally, this partner stretch targets the adductors and muscles of the back and neck. As said above, it is a test of one’s flexibility of the stretches and muscle groups discussed above. To get into the position, lie with your back flat on the ground with you feet planted and knee at a 90 degree angle. Bring your right ankle up and place just above your knee as if you we to complete another common adductor stretch. Using your hands when placed on the upper shin of the left leg, pull back and rotate up onto your upper back. If using a partner, this is were their stabilization assistance becomes important, ‘lower’ the knees towards your head and try to create a box shape. Your stretching partner can gently push down on the left ankle and left knee while bracing the right side of your back with a leg. Make sure to turn your head out so you can breath.
Self-massage is never as painful as either receiving a massage or rolling/PNF stretching; however it is a valuable tool in my recovery. By working on the leg muscles, I can flush out a day’s ride better than with just the stick and focus on the neck will promoting relaxation and a dopamine response which is great if I am trying to calm down after a race and fall asleep. I always start with the Vastuc Medialis, with large sweeping strokes. Another focus is the sheath out and underneath my Vastus Lateralis; using the base of my thumb I can run the length of the bottom six inches of my IT band and Tensor fascia. The health of this sheath is pivotal to controlling my bursa sacs and long term lower body health. Essentially I am creating a lot of heat and blood flow to the area. I also like to work on my calves and the Peroneus Longus along the outside of the shin. Driving the knuckles into the arch of the foot (or standing on a tennis/baseball and gently rolling) is also a good trick as it instigates a myofascial release cascade throughout the rest of the myofascial system. My favourite part of self-massage though is working on the upper shoulders and neck. First off, it usually means that I am almost done and can fall asleep soon, but it is also a great release as I carry a lot of tension in that area. Important notes to remember are to soap your legs well after the end of your coconut oil massage and rinse well. Also use a towel to vigorously rub against the grain so as to avoid ingrown hairs. Also, never ever shave prior to a massage.