Fitness At A Stretch

Flexibility is something many triathletes give little thought to, but a supple physique can help keep you fit and injury-free


Posted: 23 November 2009

Hours spent running, cycling and swimming will, unless you're careful, play havoc with your muscles, resulting in poor performance and an increased risk of injury. Flexibility training is possibly the most forgotten and misunderstood aspects of training, but working on it can help to not only improve your performance, but also prevent injuries and speed up the recovery process. 

What is flexibility?

In short, flexibility refers to the range of motion (ROM) available in a joint or group of joints. Flexibility training has several benefits:

Improved range of motion

Increased ROM will help your triathlon training and performance in a number of ways. Most importantly, increased ROM will allow you to move your limbs smoothly and easily without risking strain or pain. The result is improved efficiency and movement. 

Injury prevention

If you consider how many times your feet make contact with the ground during a run, it makes sense that the tighter you are the more stress your body has to deal with. Flexible muscles are better able to absorb shock and reduce joint and bone stress, which will reduce your injury risk.

Injury recovery

Stretching can help reduce the stiffness associated with an injury and can also help speed up
your return to training. It has also been suggested that improvements in flexibility can relieve muscular cramps.

Training recovery

Research has shown that stretching can help prevent a bout of delayed onset muscular soreness (DOMS) following a tough training session.

In addition to these widely reported benefits, flexibility training offers you a chance to focus, relax and take a break from daily stresses. It helps you to develop a better understanding of your body and how it responds to training. These factors should not be underestimated.

Stretching Techniques

There are a several ways you can perform your stretching: 

Static - reaching forward to a point of tension and holding. This type of stretching is great for improving ROM but shouldn't be used as part of your warm-up or cool-down routine. 

Dynamic - a more active movement, typically incorporated into the warm-up and cool-down, moving the muscle though a ROM into some tension and then back out again. This form of stretching, in which the movements resemble activity specific to the sport, is great for preparing the body for movement. 

Ballistic - a quick version of dynamic stretching, in which you use momentum and a bouncing movement to attempt to force the stretch beyond its normal range. Ballistic stretching has a bad reputation, but when performed correctly this can be a very effective method. 

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) - this type of stretching can be very effective and uses muscle contractions prior to a stretch in order to bring about maximum relaxation. You perform it by positioning the targeted muscle so that it's under tension. Then, as you contract the muscle, a partner or an immovable object provides resistance to prevent movement.  

The stretches outlined here can be performed using a combination of these techniques but the focus is on the use of static stretches. Static stretching is one of the safest forms of flexibility training, results in less muscle soreness and provides more relief from muscular distress. The exercises and methods used stretch your soft-tissue structures to increase ROM. 

When you are stretching you should feel 'mild discomfort' - a comfortable amount of tension in the muscle. Stretching should not be painful (no sharp, stinging, burning sensations or numbness). 

What to stretch

Don't adopt a 'stretch everything' mentality; prioritise the areas that need the most work. The featured exercises are a great starting point, as improvements in these areas will have a significant impact on your training. As you develop a better understanding of your body you will discover which areas need the most work and this is where you should focus your efforts.

You should stretch at least twice a week (around 20 minutes each time) if you want to improve your flexibility and ROM. Ideally, some form of flexibility work should also be incorporated into your day-to-day training schedule (around 5-10 minutes). 

How long you should hold each stretch is open to debate. The convention is that stretches are held for between 10 and 30 seconds, repeating each stretch two or three times. Others, such as American strength coach Rachel Cosgrove, hold static stretches with clients for two or three minutes, increasing the stretch or slightly changing the orientation of the limb every 30 seconds or so. 

Make it a habit

The repetitive and demanding nature of triathlon training will result in chronically tight muscles, with the knock-on problems of reduced performance and increased injury potential. Paying lip service to flexibility training will simply not cut it anymore and performing the odd stretch here and there during your warm-up and cool-down will have very little impact on performance. Make stretching a habit and allocate some quality time in your training programme to address any issues you may have. 

The lower leg is one of the most commonly injured regions of the body. Putting in the miles on the road can lead to chronically tight hip flexors (the iliopsoas muscles, which run from the lumbar vertebrae to the femur). Hip flexor problems can lead to an anterior pelvic tilt. When the muscles at the front of the pelvis become shortened you may develop problems in your hamstrings, lower back and knees. 

Hip flexor Stretch

  • Stand upright with your feet about hip-width apart.
  • Place one leg in front of the other and, bending the front knee, lower your body until the back knee is on the floor.
  • Place one hand on the forward knee and one hand on the hips.
  • Keeping the front knee bent at 90 degrees, breathe out and slowly push the front of the hip of the back leg forward and toward the floor.
  • Avoid arching the back excessively.

You should feel the stretch at the front of the groin of the rear leg.

Spending hours with your hips in a flexed position while on the bike can result in tight hip flexors, compounding the problems caused by running. Tight hip flexors can lead to an unusually tight iliotibial band (ITB), the connective tissue that runs down the outside of the thigh. A tight ITB can then have a knock-on effect, resulting in knee pain when running and cycling.

ITB Stretch

This can be a tricky one to master.

  • Place the left leg behind the right, tucking the left knee behind and across the right knee.
  • Bend at the waist, leaning over a support, such as a desk, if necessary.
  • As you bend the right knee, move the left hip sideways and slide the left leg out away from your body. Keep the left knee straight.
  • Bend your body toward the right leg, reaching back to the right foot. You should feel a stretch along the outside of the left thigh.

Repeat on the opposite side.

The back and shoulders are also very common sites of injury. Poor swimming technique, unilateral breathing and the repetitive overhead action of the freestyle stroke can all result in fatigue of the muscles around the upper back and shoulder. Any fatigue can have a negative impact on the joint stability and proper ROM. Over time this can lead to rotator cuff impingement, known as 'swimmer's shoulder'. The rotator cuff is the term used to describe the group of muscles that keep the shoulder stable. Tightness in the back (especially in the latissimus dorsi muscles, the large, flat triangular muscles in the back) and chest (pectoralis major and minor) can contribute to rotator cuff problems. Here's how to stretch your back and chest to help relieve shoulder problems.

Pectoralis Stretch

  • Stand with one arm against the corner of a wall or the edge of a doorframe with the elbow bent at a 90-degree angle. 
  • Turn the chest away from the arm to feel a stretch across the front of the shoulder and chest.

Latissimus Dorsi Stretch

  • Kneel down in front of a chair, table or a stability ball.
  • Place your hands together on top of the object, keeping your arms straight.
  • Sit back so that your bottom is resting on the back of your legs and feet.
  • Drop your head down between the arms, hold and relax into the stretch.

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pictures please!
Posted: 27/12/2009 at 19:16

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