I hate stretching.  I’ve never been close to “flexible”.  Sit-and-reach in grade school?  Off the charts terrible.  Stretching before high school basketball games?  Not gonna happen.

With each inflexibility benchmark, guilt mounted.  Stretching was suppose to be good for me right?  Improve my performance, reduce my risk of injury…something like that.

Science and stretching

In the world of sport performance a lot has changed since that pathetic sit-and-reach in my grade school hallway. Thanks to years of quality research, we’re getting closer to understanding how stretching directly impacts athletic performance.

While the focus of this article is cycling performance, let’s first examine several highlights in the larger context of stretching research.

Research highlights

Does pre-event stretching reduce the risk for injury?

Probably not [1], but if you think it helps at an individual level, make your stretch routine sport specific [2].

Does pre-event stretching improve performance?

Doesn’t look like it.  Research seems to point in the opposite direction. Studies have shown an increase in fatigue [3] and a reduction in strength, power, and explosiveness [4, 5]. If you’re compelled to stretch before an event, stick to short-duration, static stretches at lower intensities [6].

Is there a compelling reason to stretch outside of sport performance?

Perhaps. Static stretching can improve your functional range of motion (ROM) [6]. For some, an increase in ROM may lead to a significant improvement in quality of life.

Stretching and cycling

Not surprisingly, results in cycling studies mirror the larger body of stretching research.  While limited in number, there are a few studies that have examined the link between stretching and cycling performance.

In a 2011 study researchers found that static stretching prior to a ride increased submaximal VO2 (bad) [7]. In a more recent study, researchers observed a reduction in efficiency and time to exhaustion after cyclists stretched (they were metabolically less efficient and fatigued quicker) [8].

In short, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that stretching makes you faster on the bike.  It seems more likely that stretching before a race or ride might actually make you slower.

While research points toward this conclusion, our conversation changes direction when we account for the roll of aerodynamics on cycling performance.

Changing the conversation

The last few years have seen a trend toward aero everything. While a more aerodynamic position on the bike reduces drag, it also pushes the boundaries of comfort. “More aero” tends to be less comfortable.  “Less comfortable” tends to be less powerful.

A recent study illustrated the trade-off between aerodynamics and power production. Examining the effect of rider torso angle on various physiological variables, researchers observed that “lower torso angles attenuated performance” [9].

That’s a fancy way of saying the more aero the position (the more acute the torso angle), the harder it was to produce power.  This reality is no surprise to any cyclist who has attempted to cram themselves into an “ideal” time trial position.

The aero trade-off

In a similar study the same researchers sought to understand this aero/power tradeoff by using two different mathematical models to estimate the speed at which aero (less power, less drag) trumped comfort (more power, more drag) [10].

“The results showed that for both models, the optimal torso angle depends strongly on the cycling speed, with decreasing torso angles at increasing speeds”.

Sounds like a fancy way of saying aero matters more, the faster you go.  But how fast and how aero? Without going into the specific speeds and torso angles studied, the results of this study illustrate that aero isn’t everything when it comes to bike position.

Aero positions demand physiological compromises specific to each rider.  What’s aero and faster for one cyclist, might be aero and slower for another.

So how can you ensure you’re reaping the benefits of a more aerodynamic position?  Let’s outline some practical steps

In practice

  1. Don’t assume, prove that “more aero” is faster for you.  While a wind tunnel might be ideal, an informal out-and back test tracking your power, speed, and HR should be enough to make comparisons between different positions.  Yes, there will be confounding variables in your trial but at least you’ll have a place to start.
  2. Train your position. This is straightforward on a time trial bike, but equally important on a road bike. For most riders, the fastest, controlled position on a road bike is hands on the hoods with horizontal forearms [11].  If you’re rarely riding in this position while training, don’t expect to feel comfortable getting aero in a race.
  3. If you find your ROM is limiting your ability to feel comfortable while aero, experiment with a basic stretching protocol independent of your rides.  While stretching before rides might be detrimental to your performance, implementing a chronic stretching program to improve your cycling specific ROM might be helpful in feeling more comfortable (and hopefully more aero) on the bike [12].

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1. McHugh, M.P. and C.H. Cosgrave, To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2010. 20(2): p. 169-81.
2. Lewis, J., A systematic literature review of the relationship between stretching and athletic injury prevention. Orthop Nurs, 2014. 33(6): p. 312-20; quiz 321-2.
3. Trajano, G., et al., Static stretching increases muscle fatigue during submaximal sustained isometric contractions. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2015. 55(1-2): p. 43-50.
4. Costa, P.B., et al., Effects of dynamic stretching on strength, muscle imbalance, and muscle activation. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2014. 46(3): p. 586-93.
5. Simic, L., N. Sarabon, and G. Markovic, Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2013. 23(2): p. 131-48.
6. Behm, D.G. and A. Chaouachi, A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(11): p. 2633-51.
7. Wolfe, A.E., et al., Time Course of the Effects of Static Stretching on Cycling Economy. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2011. 25(11): p. 2980-2984.
8. Esposito, F., E. Ce, and E. Limonta, Cycling efficiency and time to exhaustion are reduced after acute passive stretching administration. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2012. 22(6): p. 737-45.
9. Fintelman, D.M., et al., The effect of time trial cycling position on physiological and aerodynamic variables. J Sports Sci, 2015: p. 1-8.
10. Fintelman, D.M., et al., Optimal cycling time trial position models: aerodynamics versus power output and metabolic energy. J Biomech, 2014. 47(8): p. 1894-8.
11. Barry, N., et al., Aerodynamic performance and riding posture in road cycling and triathlon. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part P: Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology, 2014.
12. Kallerud, H. and N. Gleeson, Effects of stretching on performances involving stretch-shortening cycles. Sports Med, 2013. 43(8): p. 733-50.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.