Photo: Boris Beyer, Rebagliati Park, Whistler
I'm back in London after an incredible two weeks teaching yoga in Whistler, for the final leg of the 2017 Crankworx tour. Thank you to all of you who came to my classes. And to those of you who couldn’t make it, that’s ok—I know how tempting saki-margaritas and underground parties can be.
During the event, I grilled amateurs, pros, coaches, support teams, industry professionals and local riders about all things MTB training and I’m going to share what I learned with you over the next few months, as we move into the off-season. Stretching is not a thing
The first lesson I took away from Crankworx is that mountain bikers do not like to stretch. They WANT to stretch, they know it will make them better riders, they may even know how to stretch but mountain biking could be the only sport in the world that actually encourages stretch shaming! Riders are too embarrassed to stretch out after a ride, let alone go to a yoga class—even if it is designed specifically for their sport.
Alarmingly, this applies equally to pros who have every incentive in the world to treat their bodies like well-oiled machines. One of the highest profile athletes in the sport admitted to me that his hips were so tight that they prevented him from making the whips he knows he’s capable of. Could it really be worth it NOT to spend a few minutes every day working to improve his flexibility?
I started to realize from the conversations I was having over and over that I’ve not done a good enough job at explaining how stretching can benefit you as a rider, as well as when, why and how to do it effectively.Getting sideways
Here are some good reasons to stretch out after a ride. Stretching:
- Releases muscular tension.
- Increases your range of motion.
- Lengthens muscle tissue.
- Increases muscle elasticity.
- Allows your heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature to return to normal.
- Gives you a moment to let your post-ride stoke sink in.
- Allows you to check in with how your body feels and identify the warning signs of an overuse injury.The point of stretching out after a ride is not to increase flexibility but to restore range of motion.
You can think of post-ride stretching as taking off your mountain biking suit and returning to a fully functioning human being who can twist, turn, squat, jump and move their body with ease in every direction.Is not stretching holding you back?
When you work out a particular muscle it gets stronger and tighter, and if you don’t stretch or release it after exercise, it will remain in this partially contracted state. Over time, this will limit your range of motion and create muscular imbalances that are likely to lead to pain, especially in the lower back, neck, and shoulders. This can increase your risk of injury and negatively impact your stamina, performance, and ultimately the amount of time you can keep riding at a high level.The aim of stretching is to stay feeling loose and pain-free. To look and feel like an athlete.
There’s nothing inherently magical about stretching but if you’re tight then whatever you’re doing is not working. And I’m guessing that includes a whole lot of NOT stretching.When not to stretch
Here are a few times when stretching is contraindicated (not advised):
1. One of the concerns I heard was that you do not want to be too flexible—especially in the hips—and this is a valid consideration. Mountain biking like all physical exercise requires a certain amount of tension in your muscles to generate sufficient power, speed and body control. So if you feel as though you’re too flexible, don’t stretch and certainly don’t over-stretch. However, I don’t know many riders this disqualifies.
2. It’s crucial that you don’t stretch injured muscles that are in the process of healing. Please ask your doctor or physical therapist if it’s safe for you to do these poses. Do not
attempt to stretch through the pain as this will delay your recovery and return to the bike.
3. You do not need to stretch muscles that are not tight. In fact, this may exacerbate muscular imbalances. Tune into where you are missing key ranges of motion and focus on freeing up those areas.
4. Static stretching (holding stretches) releases muscular tension which means that you do not want to do it before you exercise or work on building strength. What to stretch
As I mentioned, you only need to stretch the muscles that are tight. I’m going to give you the top eight poses I recommend to mountain bikers and you can choose which ones you need. The muscles that typically get tight are the:
- Hip flexors
- Lower back
- Upper/mid-backWhen to stretch
For the greatest benefits, you should spend 10–15 minutes stretching after each ride. If you wait too long to stretch your muscles, they will cool off in the shortened position and you’ll start to lose flexibility. Another good time to stretch is in the evening after work, when you can spend a bit more time on each stretch. Stretching is inherently relaxing. It stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, so it should also help you to sleep better.
Experiment with your own optimal stretching frequency. Is stretching out after every ride enough? Do you also need to loosen up your hips before you go to work in the morning? Or throw in a couple of evening stretches? When you become an athlete who stretches it will become intuitive what, how long and when you need to stretch, and this will be different whether you’re on holiday or working flat out, on or off-season. Like everything important in life, practice makes perfect. How to stretch
• Alignment is crucial. Ensure that your pelvis and spine are neutral (straight).
• Don’t hold your breath. Slow down your breathing and relax into the stretches.
• Think about releasing tight muscles as opposed to stretching them.
• Move around until you find a tight spot and hold that position.
• Use gravity not force to increase the stretch. An inappropriate force will trigger the body's innate reflex reaction and cause your muscles to tighten.
• Be patient and consistent.
• Hold each pose for a minute or two on each side. The poses
Click on the pose titles for full instructions and beginner modifications.1. Ragdoll
• Releases tension in the lower back, neck and shoulders and stretches the backs of the legs.2. Low Lunge with Sidebend
• Stretches the hip flexors, groin and glutes as well as the side of your torso and lats. 3. Sphinx
• Gently reverses the position of your spine, releasing tension at the lower back.4. Dead Pigeon
• Stretches the glutes primarily. This is going to be the most important pose for many of you. Ensure your pelvis and spine are neutral.5. Reclining Hand-To-Toe
• Stretches the calves and hamstrings. You can use a belt or yoga strap to deepen the stretch.6. Bridge
• Releases the hip flexors, reverses the position of your spine and opens up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders. 7. Reclining Spinal Twist
• Releases tension at your lower back and gently stretches the glutes and IT Band.8. Happy Baby
• Stretches the groin and hamstrings. You can take hold of your ankles if you can’t reach your feet. Your gateway drug
Stretching is important but it really is the bare minimum you can do in terms of athletic recovery. The next step is to incorporate consistent, short yoga sessions into your week that move your entire body—especially your hips and spine—through greater ranges of motion. Practicing yoga will also help to improve your strength, balance and body control.
You can go back over the videos I’ve posted over the last two years, or if you want to try something different, I’ve put together a new series of 5 x 15-minute videos of varying difficulty to keep you feeling loose and pain-free. You can practice them in the morning to wake up your body, during the day for an energy boost or in the evening to wind down before bed. Try incorporating yoga into your training for a month and see how you feel.
Here is the link to the series on Vimeo: vimeo.com/ondemand/yogaformountainbikersTakeaways from Crankworx
I was quite alarmed to see how little attention mountain bikers pay to even the most basic aspects of athletic recovery, compared to any other sport. It’s simple. If you don’t look after your body, how can you expect it to perform optimally? How can you expect it to move how you want it to move? Or get into the positions you want to get into? If you’re serious about winning races, improving your whips, attempting bigger jumps, crashing less and out-riding your mates, looking after your body is where you’ll get the edge.
And if you don’t like yoga, you can't use that as an excuse. There’s no question that focussing on basic body mechanics—your posture, mobility, and flexibility—is going to make you a better, faster and more skillful rider. So foam roll, find a sauna and ice bath, see a physio, get sports massages, meditate, clean up your diet. Just do something, before it’s too late.
I’d love to hear from you about your successes and fails with stretching and why you think looking after your body is so taboo amongst mountain bikers.