Form & Fitness Q & A
Got a question about fitness, training, recovery from injury or a related subject? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include as much information about yourself as possible, including your age, sex, and type of racing or riding. Due to the volume of questions we receive, we regret that we are unable to answer them all.
Carrie Cheadle, MA (www.carriecheadle.com) is a Sports Psychology consultant who has dedicated her career to helping athletes of all ages and abilities perform to their potential. Carrie specialises in working with cyclists, in disciplines ranging from track racing to mountain biking. She holds a bachelors degree in Psychology from Sonoma State University as well as a masters degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University.
Jon Heidemann (www.peaktopeaktraining.com) is a USAC Elite Certified cycling coach with a BA in Health Sciences from the University of Wyoming. The 2001 Masters National Road Champion has competed at the Elite level nationally and internationally for over 14 years. As co-owner of Peak to Peak Training Systems, Jon has helped athletes of all ages earn over 84 podium medals at National & World Championship events during the past 8 years.
Dave Palese (www.davepalese.com) is a USA Cycling licensed coach and masters' class road racer with 16 years' race experience. He coaches racers and riders of all abilities from his home in southern Maine, USA, where he lives with his wife Sheryl, daughter Molly, and two cats, Miranda and Mu-Mu.
Kelby Bethards, MD received a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Iowa State University (1994) before obtaining an M.D. from the University of Iowa College of Medicine in 2000. Has been a racing cyclist 'on and off' for 20 years, and when time allows, he races Cat 3 and 35+. He is a team physician for two local Ft Collins, CO, teams, and currently works Family Practice in multiple settings: rural, urgent care, inpatient and the like.
Fiona Lockhart (www.trainright.com) is a USA Cycling Expert Coach, and holds certifications from USA Weightlifting (Sports Performance Coach), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach), and the National Academy for Sports Nutrition (Primary Sports Nutritionist). She is the Sports Science Editor for Carmichael Training Systems, and has been working in the strength and conditioning and endurance sports fields for over 10 years; she's also a competitive mountain biker.
Eddie Monnier (www.velo-fit.com) is a USA Cycling certified Elite Coach and a Category II racer. He holds undergraduate degrees in anthropology (with departmental honors) and philosophy from Emory University and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business.
Eddie is a proponent of training with power. He coaches cyclists (track, road and mountain bike) of all abilities and with wide ranging goals (with and without power meters). He uses internet tools to coach riders from any geography.
David Fleckenstein, MPT (www.physiopt.com) is a physical therapist practicing in Boise, ID. His clients have included World and U.S. champions, Olympic athletes and numerous professional athletes. He received his B.S. in Biology/Genetics from Penn State and his Master's degree in Physical Therapy from Emory University. He specializes in manual medicine treatment and specific retraining of spine and joint stabilization musculature. He is a former Cat I road racer and Expert mountain biker.
Since 1986 Steve Hogg (www.cyclefitcentre.com) has owned and operated Pedal Pushers, a cycle shop specialising in rider positioning and custom bicycles. In that time he has positioned riders from all cycling disciplines and of all levels of ability with every concievable cycling problem. Clients range from recreational riders and riders with disabilities to World and National champions.
Current riders that Steve has positioned include Davitamon-Lotto's Nick Gates, Discovery's Hayden Roulston, National Road Series champion, Jessica Ridder and National and State Time Trial champion, Peter Milostic.
Pamela Hinton has a bachelor's degree in Molecular Biology and a doctoral degree in Nutritional Sciences, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She did postdoctoral training at Cornell University and is now an assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studies the effects of iron deficiency on adaptations to endurance training and the consequences of exercise-associated changes in menstrual function on bone health.
Pam was an All-American in track while at the UW. She started cycling competitively in 2003 and is the defending Missouri State Road Champion. Pam writes a nutrition column for Giana Roberge's Team Speed Queen Newsletter.
Dario Fredrick (www.wholeathlete.com) is an exercise physiologist and head coach for Whole Athlete™. He is a former category 1 & semi-pro MTB racer. Dario holds a masters degree in exercise science and a bachelors in sport psychology.
Scott Saifer (www.wenzelcoaching.com) has a Masters Degree in exercise physiology and sports psychology and has personally coached over 300 athletes of all levels in his 10 years of coaching with Wenzel Coaching.
Kendra Wenzel (www.wenzelcoaching.com) is a head coach with Wenzel Coaching with 17 years of racing and coaching experience and is coauthor of the book Bike Racing 101.
Steve Owens (www.coloradopremiertraining.com) is a USA Cycling certified coach, exercise physiologist and owner of Colorado Premier Training. Steve has worked with both the United States Olympic Committee and Guatemalan Olympic Committee as an Exercise Physiologist. He holds a B.S. in Exercise & Sports Science and currently works with multiple national champions, professionals and World Cup level cyclists.
Through his highly customized online training format, Steve and his handpicked team of coaches at Colorado Premier Training work with cyclists and multisport athletes around the world.
Brett Aitken (www.cycle2max.com) is a Sydney Olympic gold medalist. Born in Adelaide, Australia in 1971, Brett got into cycling through the cult sport of cycle speedway before crossing over into road and track racing. Since winning Olympic gold in the Madison with Scott McGrory, Brett has been working on his coaching business and his www.cycle2max.com website.
Richard Stern (www.cyclecoach.com) is Head Coach of Richard Stern Training, a Level 3 Coach with the Association of British Cycling Coaches, a Sports Scientist, and a writer. He has been professionally coaching cyclists and triathletes since 1998 at all levels from professional to recreational. He is a leading expert in coaching with power output and all power meters. Richard has been a competitive cyclist for 20 years
Andy Bloomer (www.cyclecoach.com) is an Associate Coach and sport scientist with Richard Stern Training. He is a member of the Association of British Cycling Coaches (ABCC) and a member of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). In his role as Exercise Physiologist at Staffordshire University Sports Performance Centre, he has conducted physiological testing and offered training and coaching advice to athletes from all sports for the past 4 years. Andy has been a competitive cyclist for many years.
Michael Smartt (www.wholeathlete.com) is an Associate Coach with Whole Athlete. He holds a Masters degree in exercise physiology, is a USA Cycling Level I (Elite) Coach and is certified by the NSCA (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). Michael has more than 10 years competitive experience, primarily on the road, but also in cross and mountain biking. He is currently focused on coaching road cyclists from Jr. to elite levels, but also advises triathletes and Paralympians. Michael is a strong advocate of training with power and has over 5 years experience with the use and analysis of power meters. Michael also spent the 2007 season as the Team Coach for the Value Act Capital Women's Cycling Team.
Advice presented in Cyclingnews' fitness pages is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to be specific advice for individual athletes. If you follow the educational information found on Cyclingnews, you do so at your own risk. You should consult with your physician before beginning any exercise program.
Mid-foot cleats: value of aft positioning with traditional shoes
Difference between Sidi Genius 5.5 carbon composite and Hi-Tech carbon
Arch cleat = lower back pain
The ultimate gel?
Patellar tendinitis and the wedge
20's or 23's
I am a 42 year old male rider doing recreational rides, usually a mixture of hills (30-50km) once or twice/week and then a longer flat ride (100km). I started riding again about 12 months ago and feel I've built up my fitness to a reasonable level. But I have a persistent problem with pain at the rear of the right knee. It can be helped with hamstring stretches as well as stretches for the top of my calf but after a long ride the issue re-emerges. Self-massage shows the area is painful. I also feel my right hip is noticeably less flexible than my right.
I did have an older bike (61cm) but have just upgraded to a 60cm Trek Madone. I was hoping with a current bike fit the issue would sort itself out but no joy. I have noticed that my left shoulder is higher than my right, and has been so for some years. Like most of us I work at a desk and computer. One bike fit chap mentioned that core strength is often lacking in people who work as I do - but could this be related to the knee pain? FYI I had two bike fits done (one for a prospective custom-fit bike); both came out remarkably close.
Also, elsewhere in your column you allude to the natural variability in professional fitness advice. So far I have not sought professional advice. Is there some way to be pointed towards good practitioners? I am limited in my knowledge and would prefer to not to head down blind alleys! I am from Melbourne, Australia.
Thanks in advance for anything you can advise.
Steve Hogg replies:
Your problem is likely a simple one and is that you are overextending the right leg. The larger questions are why and what do about it.
Start with the simple things first.
1. If your right cleat is further back relative to foot in shoe, this can cause overextension of the right leg. Solution - make sure both cleats are in the same relative place which may not necessarily be the same place on the sole of the shoe because of possible difference in foot sizes. Have a look at http://www.cyclingnews.com/fitness/?id=2004/letters10-11#Ball and the second part of this post http://www.cyclingnews.com/fitness/?id=2004/letters07-26#Cleat
2. Once you have checked 1. the next thing to consider is whether you sit squarely on the seat. If you aren't and it is likely, that may be your problem.. Take your shirt off, mount your bike on an indoor trainer and have an observer standing on a chair above and behind you so that he / she can look down at your lower back while pedaling. The questions to ask them are: a. Are you dropping one hip on each pedal stroke?
b. If so, which one?
c. Are you pushing one hip forward or sitting with one side of the pelvis twisted forward?
d. If so, which side is forward?
Let me know the answers to those queries and I will advise further.
3. Seat height. If your seat is even a few mm too high, you will autonomically choose to protect one side from overextension by protecting it. This will cause the other to side to overextend. As a test, drop your seat 5mm. Does this improve the situation?
Does the left leg now feel like it is under extending?
4. You may have a measurably or functionally shorter right leg. If so, the easy solution is to shim your right cleat.
Re the left shoulder. It may be indicative of structural issues that cause of play a part in your current problem. You don't provide enough info to allow any degree of certainty.
As to what health professional to see in Melbourne, contact me privately.
Per the ongoing dialog discussing the relative benefits of mid-foot cleat position, I have some rather run of the mill inquires. Like most training techniques is this something that one should introduce into a training regime early in the season or is it liked to something similar to switching to Q-rings which most users report taking a handful of rides to adapt too? Also for those of us with shoe/cleat combinations that prevent true mid-foot setup, can we expect some (although lessened) performance gains by moving our cleats as far back as our current shoe/cleat combination allow and would this change be recommended by the true mid-foot converts?
The limited empirical data and biomechanical descriptions all make sense to me however I've be racing long enough to know that overnight changes to bike position, gear, etc, usually result in unpleasant and untimely disasters. So before I (being part of the majority of racers probably not able to achieve true mid-foot cleat position) run downstairs and slam my cleats into the back seat can one of your noted authorities please comment on this hybrid cleat positioning?
Steve Hogg replies:
The short answer is that I don't know. I don't know where your cleats are now relative to foot in shoe so it is a bit of a leap to speculate on what may happen if they move back further (how much further is possible?)
Be careful to read the caveats I place on that advice as there are plenty of reasons to diverge from that.
That is 'general' advice that will benefit the great majority of people who either don't know what their cleat position is (a surprisingly large number) or who believe that the centre of the ball of the foot should be over the centre of the pedal axle. I wear a size 44 or 45 shoe depending on brand. Prior to converting to mid-foot, I had the centre of the ball of my foot 15mm in front of the pedal axle which is more than those general recommendations suggest, but in my case helped with a very unstable left knee (old football injury) by causing greater hamstring enlistment. For me this meant that I could ride as hard as I liked without problems that would otherwise occur.
To convert to mid-foot meant moving my cleats back another 45+ mm again. That means that if you shove your cleats back all the way, you are not going to be anywhere near mid-foot. For a majority of riders using 3 bolt road pedal systems, they will struggle to get to the plus 15mm position that I used to ride. Most mtb shoes with two bolt cleats have more rearward cleat positioning potential than 3 bolt road shoes. My experience is that most mtb riders usually present with more foot over pedal before ever I touch their position without problems arising from this.
What that means simply, is that if you want to shove your cleats all the way back and providing you reduce your seat height appropriately; you are unlikely to have a problem in the sense of injuring yourself. Whether you perform better or not, only you can decide.
I will be interested to hear how you get on.
Thanks for your recent article on Sidi Genius 5.5 Carbon Composite shoes. Could you tell me the difference between the SIDI Genius 5.5 Carbon Composite and SIDI Genius 5.5 Hi-Tech Carbon (in particular with reference to the sole and stiffness)?
The reason why this is of interest to me is that I had previously bought a full carbon sole shoe - there was definitely no energy loss is power transfer to the pedals, but unfortunately the extreme stiffness and lack of "give" in the sole gave me a sore right knee.
Steve Hogg replies:
I am not totally clear on which is which; memory fails me, but the version with the one piece carbon sole is more rigid than the version with the bolt in insert type carbon sole. Neither are as rigid as many other brands of carbon shoe sole. Sidi resisted carbon soles for years believing that there was such a thing as too much stiffness in a shoe sole. Now that they have carbon soles to fight marketing wars, theirs are not as rigid as many competitors.
One correction; it wasn't the more rigid carbon sole you had that gave you a sore right knee. It was a functional or measurable asymmetry that set you up for the issue with the increased rigidity of the shoe sole highlighting a pre existing problem. If indeed it was the sole stiffness that was the issue.
Shoe last shape and cleat position can play a part in these matters as well. I have seen plenty of riders who came to me because "My shoe soles are so stiff that they cause me problems" I have found it extremely rare for that to be the case. As I said, the increased sole rigidity highlighted existing issues that they were unaware of
I am a 44 years old, none racer, avid cyclist, I ride for the most part consistently about 2-3 times a week for the last 5 plus years. I have maintained my fitness level constant for the most part, except lately.
I stoped riding for 2 weeks as the winter was rainy and cold and then I got sick with the flu, but since about 3 months ago I got back to my usual mileage, but I am getting slower and slower every week, feeling a lot more tired than usual. I have been getting muscular soreness and pain in my legs the day after a ride for the last month or so, with no other explanation about my health, except for an acid reflux syndrome which I do not think is related to this. A recent physical examination returned a negative result and my weight is normal. Any ideas?
Scott Saifer replies:
This sounds like a very frustrating situation, with several possible causes, medical and non-medical. First I would consider nutrition: are you getting enough carbohydrate to support the training you are doing? If you are maintaining weight and getting about 50% or more of your daily calories from carbohydrate, this is not your problem. If you are losing weight, or are maintaining on a low-carbohydrate diet, you should look into increasing your carbohydrate consumption. Could there be any other nutritional problems? Do you avoid salt for instance? That can lead to fatigue.
Next area of concern is ride intensity. If you are going hard enough to breath hard for more than a minute or two on most rides, gradual loss of speed is expected. Especially after a layoff, your body needs a steady diet of sub-LT, endurance paced base building to get and maintain fitness.
Next is recovery behaviours: If you are not sleeping well, or have a great deal of stress in your life, that can explain poor performance.
Finally, this may seem too obvious to mention, but bike fit can be an issue, if for instance your saddle has been slowly slipping down so that you are no longer in an efficient position.
If you are eating well, sleeping well, reasonably relaxed, riding appropriate efforts and properly fitted on your bike but you are still losing speed and strength from week to week and getting sore, it's time to talk to the doctor again, perhaps about having your hormone levels checked.
Hi. At the start of this cycling season I moved my cleats as far behind the ball of my foot as possible to try and emulate the biomac/arch cleat position. This resulted in my cleat being 2.5cm (a change of 1.7cm from my previous position) behind the ball of my foot. To accommodate for this change in cleat position I dropped my saddle 1cm.
When riding the new cleat position feels quite comfortable and perhaps more efficient. However, after about 2hrs of riding my lower back (Quadratus lumborum?) becomes quite fatigued. In my previous cleat position and saddle height, lower back pain was never an issue, so this is surprising to me (Come to think of it, I made the same cleat and saddle height changes last year with my MTB and got the same back fatigue).
Anyway here are my questions: 1) When switching to a more arch oriented cleat position is lower back pain or fatigue common?
2) Or is this back fatigue only common to those with saddles too high for arch cleats?
3) Also, all my recent adjustments seem to have my saddle height in free fall (lower quads next to knees burning...drop the saddle, broken neck...drop the saddle, arch cleat...drop the saddle), are their any ques for when a saddle is too low (Back pain?).
East Lansing MI USA
Steve Hogg replies:
Firstly, with the centre of the ball of your foot 25mm in front of the pedal axle, you are no where near mid-foot cleat position, even if you have a small foot.
Next re 1; I know you are a regular reader of the forum, so go back to square one and re-evaluate your altered position in the manner you have before.
A. the seat needs to be the minimum distance behind the bottom bracket that allows you to largely un-weight the upper body under reasonable load.
B. Gauge your seat height by performing repeats up a moderate hill in a gear that is one cog too high (harder gear) for comfort. The hill needs to be long enough so that you are having to work hard to keep on top of the gear. If you are smooth and controlled through the bottom of the stroke on both legs, mission accomplished. If not, get back to me.
C. Once A and B are put to bed, re evaluate your bar and brake hood position. Can you exercise all your hand placement options comfortably?
If not, let me know what the problem is and I will attempt to advise.
A couple of things; if it is your QL's that are causing you pain, then you are rocking on the seat from side to side. Does one side give you more grief than the other?
If your seat is low enough to cause back pain, and it can happen, then most of the time there is a concurrent feeling of dead or heavily loaded quads, primarily down the centre line of the upper leg as the rectus femoris becomes cramped at the front of the hip. Your description of knee pain in the quads just above the knee could be seat height too high or too low depending on the site and nature of the pain.
Can you be a bit more specific?
I have been using honey (combined with ham sandwiches) on my bike rides in lieu of the many gels available out there. I also take a couple of spoonfuls after the ride for recovery. Is honey the oldest and ultimate gel? Is there any science to support the benefits of honey for on the bike nutrition?
Scott Saifer replies:
There is nothing magic about any of the gel products on the market. They are all mixes of various amounts of various nutrients that are widely available in "real" foods. There is very little evidence to support the inclusion of any of the special ingredients (amino acids, proteins, herbal stuff, and caffeine) in the gels.
Honey is a mix of rapidly absorbable and metabolizable glucose and slower metabolizing fructose. The ratio varies tremendously depending on the source of the honey but the bottom line is that if you make an honest comparison of your performance with honey and with gel and your performance is as good with honey (which it most likely will be) you should use your honey since you evidently enjoy it.
I've been having knee problems while riding my bike for about 1 1/2 years. It started as patellar tendinitis, which I went to physiotherapy for. In the process of trying to heal the tendinitis, the physiotherapist had me switch to Specialized Body Geometry shoes with a built-in wedge.
For several months I built up slowly on the bike, riding gently and not too far. But I developed new pains around my knee cap, and on the upper tibia, which the physiotherapist called a shin splint. Even with the new pain, he insisted I keep doing my gentle rides.
I've stopped going to physio, but have carried on with the exercises and stretches. After a break from the bike in late fall, I started up again on my indoor trainer in January, still using the Specialized shoes. After gentle rides of 15-20 minutes, I developed knee pains around my kneecap, and my knee was a little sore the next day. I carried on like this for several weeks, and finally decided to ditch the wedge and go back to flat shoes.
That seemed to go OK until I started riding outside again recently. The pains around my kneecap and upper tibia started again, not constant but fleeting, changing as I changed the position of my foot on the pedal.
Do I need orthotics? (My last physio told me no) Do I need someone to evaluate my foot position on the pedal? Do I need a sports doctor or knee specialist? I've had x-ray and ultrasound and they showed nothing.
Scott Saifer replies:
There are several possible causes of your pain. A proper bike fitting including a cleat adjustment would be a good place to start. The pains you describe certainly could arise from a bad bike fit and bike fit should be eliminated as a possible cause before you consider orthotics or physical therapy.
Can we assume you spin light gears during warm up and ride primarily seated? Pushing hard either on a big gear or by riding standing in the first minutes of a ride could also cause knee pain.
Steve Hogg replies:
You say " I've been having knee problems while riding my bike..."
Did anyone who treated or advised you look at what you are doing while you pedal on your bike?
If a problem arises on a bike, then it can often be pointless and time consuming to follow advice that is given without an on bike examination of what you are doing.
If this didn't happen, seek better advice or try a self help approach. If self help is the option that you choose, I would start by looking at the simple things first. When next you ride check that you cleat position allows some free rotational movement either side of where your foot naturally sits on the pedal. Check this at both moderate and high intensity by doing as follows.
Clip in and accelerate to about 30 km/h, stop pedaling and coast with the foot of injured side forward and more or less horizontal. Twist your heel in. Is there available movement?
If yes, fine. If no, stop and adjust the cleat so by pointing the front of the cleat inwards slightly. You may have to repeat this pedal, coast and twist test several times to achieve some available movement.
Once you have satisfied yourself that you have or have attained a measure of heel in free play from where your foot naturally wants to sit, then repeat the pedal and coast test but this time try and move your heel outwards.
Is there available movement?
If yes, great. If not, stop and adjust the front of the cleat so that it points further outwards slightly. Repeat the pedal and coast test until you have movement either side of your natural foot plant.
Now repeat the whole procedure at high intensity. Many people change their foot plant angle under severe load and if the foot cannot find its 'natural' position, then various problems including ITB problems can result.
Check the other side as well because sometimes when there is a problem with cleat angle, the real culprit is the side that isn't hurting that we may be unwittingly accommodating by stressing the other leg.
If all that checks out have someone look at you from behind on an indoor trainer with your shirt off. Your observer needs to be standing on a chair above and behind you. What they need to be able to tell you is whether you are rotating one hip forward on the pedal down stroke and / or dropping one hip. If you are, then it can sometimes be the knee of the other leg that develops niggles as its' plane of movement is challenged by the asymmetric pedaling style. If you are sitting asymmetrically, get back to me.
Lastly, try and find someone experienced with bike positioning who takes a structural rather than formula approach. Very few knee problems on a bike are inherently knee problems. They are usually issues with the hip or lower back at one end of the kinematic chain or the foot/ ankle at the other. The poor old knee is trapped in the middle and basically wants to operate in one plane of movement only.
Let me know what you find.
I am a 30 year old cat. 3 male, and have been road racing for five years.
I was looking around the internet the other day looking for some suggestions on stretching routines. Some of the articles I found though (including Wikipedia), were claiming that stretching actually decreases athletic performance and does not contribute to injury prevention. I've always practiced before and after workout stretching routines as well as incorporating yoga into my weekly training. Could you please explain where these claims stem from and suggest an optimal routine?
Scott Saifer replies:
Thanks for the awesome question. This is a very controversial topic and here's my best effort to cut through the controversy and provide a balanced view. The evidence that higher levels of flexibility impair certain sorts of exercise performance (especially running and jumping sorts of exercises, and repetitive motion exercises like cycling and running) is incontrovertible. The absence of evidence for stretching preventing injury is pretty convincing too, but some people swear they have to stretch to keep their back or knees functional. What's going on?
The missing component in the discussion is something like "unless you need it". If you take a large group of people, split them into a stretching group and non-stretching group and compare their results a few months later, the stretching group will do the same or worse on running or cycling tests. However there is also a subset of athletes who need to stretch to rehab from an injury or to avoid exacerbating an injury. For instance, some people clearly can clear knee pain or back spasms with appropriate stretching, and will suffer if they don't stretch. And clearly if one of these people were to have been stretching regularly before the first onset of their injury, they would not have gotten the injury or it would have been less severe.
So the negative results are probably in part the result of selection criteria for the studies: If you have knee or back pain you don't get into an exercise study. If you look at the whole normal population, you'll find that for the vast majority stretching is neutral or detrimental. For those few that are susceptible to injuries that are amenable to stretching, stretching is beneficial.
Now consider people who can't get comfortable on a bike. The majority of them are trying to ride bikes so poorly fitted to them that stretching won't help. If the position was bad enough to cause an injury, they'll mostly get injured whether they stretch or not. There will be a small group however whose positions are close enough that stretching makes a difference. Exercise and stretching studies are generally not done on large enough samples to identify such small effects though.
Stretching does improve performance in "flexibility sports" such as gymnastics.
Dave Fleckenstein replies:
The truth is that there is no one correct program for all. Ideally, we would all have a very individualized system of stretching and stability based on our specific needs. In general, I don't prescribe stretching as a short term performance enhancer. Flexibility is of value for those individual who have restrictions preventing them from attaining correct alignment due to soft tissue and joint restrictions. Often I have seen bike fitters adapt the bike to someone's pathology rather than correct the pathology (or guide them to someone who can correct it), usually because they do not recognize normal from aberrant motion patterns.
Here is a previous post that I wrote the last time stretching was an issue on the panel:
The main question here is what is the most effective way to lengthen collagen, the primary building block of connective tissue? I like to think of collagen as an unusual type of spring. With stretching we are trying to lengthen, or deform the spring. While force is the most effective way to deform a regular spring (how hard we pull it apart), time is the most effective way to deform the spring of collagen. Healthy, mobile tissue generally looks like nicely combed hair under the microscope - all the fibres are aligned in parallel, allowing the 'spring' of collagen to be mobile in certain directions and resistant in others. Restricted tissue tends to look like fibres of a furnace filter - randomly aligned (which is actually the cross-linking of collagen tissue) and generally resistant to any motion.
My overall thoughts regarding stretching are as follows, based on research and my clinical experience:
1) Low load, long duration (LLPD) stretches are the most effective ways to permanently lengthen tissues - in simple terms, time is a more effective way to lengthen tissues than force.
An interesting observation is that there are certain tissues that we want to stretch and certain ones that we don't. The same way that time is an effective way to lengthen the hamstrings; prolonged slumping (either sitting in a chair or sitting on a bike) can also lengthen the collagen fibres of the disc and supportive ligaments of the spine. This results in a loss of integrity of the disc and premature breakdown.
2) 30 second stretches, contract/relax stretches, AIS stretching, etc., do not permanently lengthen tissue, but can result in transient improvements in flexibility.
My clinic is full of patients who have performed this type of stretching for years, notice a short term benefit, but no cumulative improvement. Why? Because I don't think collagen is affected with these stretches, the nervous system is. The nervous system plays an important role in regulating how tissue moves. These types of stretches affect mechanisms that regulate the tone of muscle tissue - how much contraction is going through tissue at one time. These can be effective ways to reduce spasm or provide short term increases in mobility.
3) There is an optimum amount of flexibility. If there is not some resistance present in the connective tissues, we don't transmit forces well - it is dispersed within the tissue. Indeed, some professional athletes that I have seen demonstrate marked tightness, but they are able to prevent those forces from transmitting to structures that are not designed to disperse stress. I think that these are the athletes who picked their parents well and have a physical gift. I certainly have patients that are too flexible as well, but it is generally not their hamstrings, hip musculature, and hip flexors that are too mobile. It is usually the musculature and structures' surrounding the spine and this is not good.
4) Flexibility is not something that should just occur when we are "warmed up," it should be present permanently. This enables us to move correctly throughout our day, through all motions. My general rule is that I want local spine stability (to protect and maintain optimum alignment of these highly reactive structures) and lumbopelvic musculature flexibility, so that our pelvis can move correctly and provide a well-aligned base for the spine.
So, what seems simple is not so simple, after all. In many of the studies that found negative results of stretching, tissues that should not have been stretched were lengthened, creating problems. I often see athletes selecting very poor stretching techniques, such as bending forward to touch their toes thinking that they are stretching their hamstrings when they are actually placing huge forces and stretch on the disc and ligaments of the spine. Studies that look grossly at applying one general stretch across a highly variable population will generally end up with inconclusive findings.
Many thanks for a great question and I look forward to discussing this more!
Dario Fredrick replies:
If we examine the available research, there is no compelling evidence to support either the ergogenic or detrimental effects of stretching on exercise performance, and apparently none that directly examine endurance performance -- which is what's relevant when talking about cycling & road racing. Of the available research on the topic of stretching and exercise/strength performance, the evidence is divided. There are a few published studies that have looked at stretching and its effects on explosive muscular efforts or strength endurance (typically measured as maximum # of repetitions of a strength exercise such as a leg press at a percentage of 1 repetition max. weight), but as mentioned, the results are mixed.
I think it is useful to consider stretching as simply a tool, much like training or a heart rate monitor. A tool is only as useful as how it's used. Using a specific example of stretching & cycling, some cyclists who have tight external hip rotator muscles have difficulty pedaling in an aligned fashion. Their knees tend to draw laterally away from the bike, particularly as they reach deeper hip flexion at the top of the pedal stroke. This can require greater activation of the adductor muscles (inner thighs), resulting in more muscular work for the same power (lower efficiency). While we can accommodate these common pedaling mechanics to some degree through proper fit (wider Q-factor, wedges, etc.), increased mobility/flexibility of the external hip rotators can improve pedaling mechanics and efficiency in this situation over time. The evidence supporting this example is anecdotal, but experience and feedback from many cyclists over periods of months and years are worth considering.
Regarding yoga practice, as you probably know it is much more than just stretching. Yoga provides us with a set of tools as well, and its goal on the physical level is to develop harmony in the body. There are multiple styles of yoga that emphasize alignment rather than just increasing flexibility, which is what I recommend and have been teaching for more than a decade. My study and teaching of the postures is strongly influenced by the Iyengar method, and I emphasize to students the focus of balanced alignment at both the musculo-skeletal level and at the level of the nervous system. For example, enhancing parasympathetic function (counterpart to the stress response) of the autonomic nervous system using yoga postures is clearly beneficial to cyclists as a proactive means of improving recovery. Regarding a routine of yoga-based stretching recommendations, here is a sample of my Yoga Handbook for Cyclists with three poses that cyclists find helpful (http://www.wholeathlete.com/documents/yoga_handbook_IT.pdf).
Let me know if you have more specific questions related to your pedaling mechanics and body expression on the bike.
I am 6'1" 160, and I prefer to ride 700x20's because of the lower rolling resistance. I feel there is less drag on the rear end. I live in an area where it is not highly technical in terms of downhills and constant turns so I have not had a problem with grip. I have had the back end come loose on up hill sprints, but that seems to be a problem for some of my friends to who run 23's. However, they do think I am crazy for running super thin tires. What do the pros do in dry conditions (non pave')? Any recommendations?
Eddie Monnier replies:
After reading your question, I immediately thought of the saying "measuring with a micrometer and marking with a grease pencil." My intent is not to give you a hard time, but rather, to use a bit of humour to highlight how relatively common it is for cyclists to look for the little things and ignore the more important, more impactful ones.
Rolling resistance is caused by rubber deformation losses in the tread, the casing and the tube. Presumably you want to minimize rolling resistance to go faster at the same power. If you do a little research, you'll find that a narrower tire has more rolling resistance at the same pressure than a wider tire. This is because a narrower tire has a long, oval shaped contact patch with the road, which means more of the casing and tire are flexed. This is a bit misleading, however, because a narrow tire can and should be inflated to slightly higher pressures than a wider tire (about 10 psi more for 20 mm vs. 23 mm). But there are other tire-related factors such as tire construction, tread thickness, tread pattern and, very importantly, tire pressure (most people over inflate). All-in-all, my suggestion would be to ride 23mm tires, inflated to about 110 psi.
There are many factors beyond tire attributes, including but not limited to your bike fit position (aerodynamics), aerodynamics of the wheels and bike, and, of course, your fitness that are likely to have a far greater impact than the difference between riding 23mm and 20mm tires in terms of how fast you go.
To answer your question about what the pro's ride, in normal road racing conditions they run 22-23mm tires. On pave, like Paris-Roubaix, they run even wider tires (24-28mm).