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Don't Swear, Spring Cyclists! Stretch and Strengthen Instead

Here are a couple great stretches to help increase your flexibility, and keep you in the saddle.

An unseasonably nice day arrives, and you're back on the bike. Feels good, right? But then you climb a steep hill or try to keep up with your buddies on a long ride, and you pay for it later. You ache, maybe limp a little, and silently curse the bike.

It isn't the bike's fault. Curse yourself for not paying a bit more attention to early-season training. Give your body a break and ease into the cycling season, and ramp up stretching and strengthening to make your biking more enjoyable.

"In the recreational cycling group, what we see most are pain syndromes and overuse injuries," says physical therapist Erik Moen, whose Kenmore-based company, Corpore Sano, treats many cyclists and saw an influx of hurting riders right after the .

The first rule of proper training, he says, is to not get injured, because, simply, "if you get injured you can't train." 

Avoid overuse injuries

"Overuse injuries are preventable events," he says, and often result from training errors, improper biking skills or lack of flexibility and strength. 

Training errors could be described as too much, too soon. That arises when you don't create a realistic training schedule and stick to it. "The most important thing about achieving your training volume is: do the time, recover from it, and then push higher, farther, faster," he advises. 

In other words, don't think you can jump into a 100-mile ride if your winter training has consisted only of 10-mile rides. You need to build up to it.  

Improper bike skills also can cause injuries. Climbing a steep hill with low-cadence pedaling puts a lot of stress on your knees, for instance, and you're at risk for injury. 

Leading early-season Cascade Bicycle Club rides, I often see riders rubbing their shoulders or shaking out their hands, which are both caused by improper posture on the bike. Perhaps you forgot since last fall that the way you hold your arms and shoulders can contribute to what Moen calls "vibrational-type injuries." 

· If your arms are locked at the elbows, the road shock is going to be transmitted up into your neck and shoulders.

· If you keep your hands in one handlebar position with wrists locked, or rest your weight on the handlebars, you can pressure the median or ulnar nerves in the wrist, causing hand numbness.

Improper bike fit and musculoskeletal irregularities are two other reasons you could be experiencing painful training rides. You need a professional bike fitter and a good healthcare provider to tackle those two issues. 

Stretch to build flexibility

It's understandable that our bodies can give us grief when we exercise on a bike, says Moen. "I like to say that bicycles weren't in mind when we were invented," he says. Our bodies are naturally designed for walking and running, so when we interact with a bicycle "there has to be some give and take on both the bike and the body," he explains.

Flexibility -- achieved through regular stretching of key biking muscle groups -- is the key.

The hamstrings, which stretch from your pelvis to the back of the knee, and the gluteal muscles in your behind are the ones most in need of improved mobility and training, he says.

Two key concepts about increasing your flexibility:

1. It will take time. You need to perform the stretches regularly for weeks and months at a time. "Realistic stretch gains are slow," Moen says. There's an old, true saying that an activity you do daily for a month will become a habit.

2. The stretches must be appropriate for biking. "When we sit on the saddle, our position is fixed and the leg is stretched forward," Moen explains. "If I want to get a hamstring flexible for cycling, I want to stretch it in a natural line that I would experience in a pedal stroke." 

Two great stretches

So, let's get down to brass tacks. Here are two great stretches (see accompanying photos), one for the hamstring and one for the glutes, specifically helpful to flexibility when on the bike.

The hamstring stretch that Moen recommends is done from a standing position. Stand squarely in front of a bench or chair, with feet hip-width apart and back flat. Put one heel onto the bench, with your knee slightly flexed. Move into the stretch by bending forward at the waist. Moen gives the cue of "stick out your butt and chest" to ensure proper rotation and keep your back flat.

Hold this stretch for a few seconds, then release and relax for a bit. Do it a few times in a row, holding it each time, not bouncing. "It's been demonstrated in scientific literature that the most effective way of elongating a muscle group is prolonged static stretches," he says. Work up to "a combined period of two minutes of stretch per muscle."

The glute stretch is done lying down, with your knees up and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right leg over the left knee at the ankle, then grab under the left knee. Pull the knee toward your shoulder on the same side and hold. You should feel a stretch in your left glute. Do this with repetitions, then switch to the other side. 

Strength for the back

Your back is crucial for good posture while biking, so strengthening lower back muscles is another key to comfortable cycling. Moen advises getting to work on this now, because back pain is not a problem you can resolve six weeks before your big cycling event.

There are two gym machine workouts that can help: the seated, single-leg hamstring curl and the glute-ham machine. These can also be simulated out of the gym, with stretch bands or  large therapy balls.

For more detailed advice, Moen recommends a good, locally produced book, "Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness" by Bellevue trainer Mark Pierce and sports physician Dr. David Musnick (Mountaineers Books, 2004). 

Be patient, start slow

Moen advises a three-month training program to get ready for a long ride, starting with no more than an hour of biking in the first sessions. Work up to three rides a week, getting progressively longer and more difficult. 

Also, think more about a daily stretching regimen rather than pre- or post-ride stretching. "It's not going to do you much good to do the old Hail Marys right before you ride," he says. "Keep in mind that flexibility takes time. To make appreciable gains, you need to give it at least six weeks, if not six months." 

When hopping on your bike, the flexibility should already be there. But that doesn't mean you should just "put the hammer down" from the start line. He advises a warm-up period, and a cool-down at the end.  

Ride the McClinchy Mile

Up next in the category of fun club rides is the McClinchy Mile, this Saturday, March 18, put on by B.I.K.E.S. Club of Snohomish County. Head to Arlington and ride a 34-mile flat and scenic loop, or the more challenging 48- or 52-mile loops. You can also check out the newly extended (see last week's column). 

Bill Thorness is the author of Biking Puget Sound: 50 Rides from Olympia to the San Juans. Contact him at bill@bikingpugetsound.com.

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