Getting Flexible - Are You on the Right Track?
Updated: Jan 18
So what is the best way to get flexible? And why do you as a cyclist need to be all over this?
Have you tried stretching and felt like you were getting nowhere? Most of you who have sought my clinical opinion won’t be surprised to you hear me say that if stretching was all you did you almost certainly made no long term change, and there’s good reasons why this is so.
Almost everyone has a desire to “be more flexible”. If this is you, then I want you to consider how flexible is “flexible enough” and how much is “too much”. If you don’t think you can be “too flexible” you should see the number of yoga or ballet induced injuries I’ve seen from pushing flexibility too far. This introduces the concept of what does optimal flexibility looks like, as opposed to being too tight and what is too loose. Too tight and too loose both cause problems.
Think of flexibility this way: there is an optimum flexibility range based on your chosen activity. The optimum range for a given muscle or joint will vary according to the demand you want to place on it. For example if you play a sport with high flexibility demands (like gymnastics or dance) your optimal flexibility range will be greater compared to a sedentary person. However even a sedentary person needs flexible hips to sit up straight in a chair, and most sports require a high level of flexibility in at least one area to perform at your best (for example, cyclists require well developed hip / hamstring flexibility, and swimmers shoulder flexibility).
Which brings us to the “why” be flexible in the first place? Because it is one factor that helps optimise performance whilst simultaneously prevent injury. Simple stuff, but too often ignored.
Now the “how”. How do you get flexible? I’m sure you can rattle off a pretty standard list of things you can do:
Stretch (or one of its variants like PNF stretching);
Here’s my clinical experience: if that’s all you do then the second you stop guess what happens: you’re back to square one with no lasting flexibility gain. Why? Because whatever is tight is tight for a reason, and that reason isn’t forgetting to stretch. You need to deal with the underlying issues, which far more commonly involves a weakness somewhere else that your tight muscle is compensating for (eg hamstrings became tight because your abdominals were weak).
And here’s the other reason – typically better improvements are made using strengthening exercise, especially a form of strength work known as eccentric exercise, than stretching or one of the other flexibility activities listed above. A recent study compared foam rolling versus eccentric exercise for calf muscle flexibility*, and the only longer term change in flexibility was in the group who did the eccentric exercise. Plus you get the added bonus of getting strong which is in all likelihood a better way to improve performance and prevent injury in the first place.
So my take home messages regarding flexibility are:
If you are tight, find out the reason(s) and do something about them. Stretching or other flexibility activities done in isolation rarely produce a lasting result.
Know your optimal flexibility range: tight isn’t good, but excessive flexibility is also detrimental. A skilled Physiotherapist can advise you as to what ideal flexibility might look like for your chosen activities.
Consider seeing your Physiotherapist regarding appropriate eccentric exercise to enhance both flexibility and strength in conjunction with addressing the underlying cause(s) of your tightness. Taking on eccentric exercise without professional advice is unwise.
*Aune A et al (2019): Acute and chronic effects of foam rolling vs eccentric exercise on ROM and force output of the plantar flexors. JOURNAL OF SPORTS SCIENCES 37:138-145.