My life as an NYC nomad hit an all-time low last night. I've felt FINE throughout my week of couch-crashing whilst logging 350 miles (indoor/outdoor) and schlepping the most wretchedly heavy suitcase and backpack known to mankind. But last night, I slept on a (carpeted) floor. Now? I'm hobbling all over the place.
As many of you know, when I actually lived here, I hobbled quite a bit. After suffering a third-degree strain (tear) of my iliopsoas tendon in April 2008 and re-injuring it too many times to count (after prematurely returning to the saddle, and delaying physical therapy WAY too long), it was pretty uncomfortable to be me for a while. The iliopsoas is our prime hip flexor, after all: forget cycling; basic walking was a big ordeal.
But I don't regret a minute of it. Why? Because this experience taught me the importance of stretching to prevent injury and to promote muscular repair/growth. This happened to me because I used to teach 5 Spinning classes a day -- and even though I was super-responsible about my heart rate control and recovery time, I simply did not stretch sufficiently. I'd always be scurrying about from one club to another, and largely did not attend to my stretching beyond that which I was incorporating into my own classes. I paid the price for that. Now I consider it an important part of my role as a coach to share this message, and to teach people how to incorporate adequate stretching into their fitness regimens.
In NYC, I had a lot of constraints. 45 min classes attended by riders under a lot of pressure to rush back to the rest of their lives. I used to do a 5 minute combined on-bike (cool-down/light upper body stretching)/off-bike (lower-body stretching). So inadequate. I'd then explain why these stretches were inadequate, and encourage people to join me on the mats outside the Spinning studio for another 5-10 minutes of extra stretching. I'd never get more than 1-3 people take me up on that; sometimes none at all.
In VT, I had the advantage to walking into a new place and declaring that "this is the way I do things," and just... doing them. Anxiety-provoking, yes. Somewhat ballsy, yes. Successful? Absolutely.
So in my 60 minute classes, I spend 5 minutes leading a cool-down on the bike with light upper body stretching. Then another 5 minutes off-bike lower body stretching. Then 5-7 minutes on mats at the back of the room, focusing on lower body, upper/lower back, neck, and even breathing techniques.
I've received a few emails from instructors and riders asking about the specifics of what I actually do. I've meant to write this up forever ago, and I apologize for taking so long. Here goes. I'll include a little bit of cueing, in case anyone will find that helpful.
With the exception of the shoulder rolls/overhead extensions (shorter), I coach to be held 20-30 seconds. Hamstring stretches, longer.
Back off the resistance a bit, still supporting some resistance. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Lengthen the breath a bit longer on the way out, to bring your heart rate down. Back off the resistance a little bit more. Flushing it out, still breathing. [I'll then say something to summarize whatever the ride had been about]. If you've got any resistance left on the flywheel, back it off.
Shoulder rolls (front/back x 4-8)
Overhead stretch x 3 --> Back --> Chest
>> Let abdomen expand as you inhale, bring arms up. Contract as you exhale, bring arms down. [On third inhalation]: lock your fingers up. Press your palms towards the ceiling. Exhale, reach out forward and round out the back. Reach behind you up tall, open up the chest.
>> Drop your shoulder, support with the opposite hand. Reach across and downards. *The key is the shoulder drop before the extension. Switch.
>> Reach up for a tricep stretch. Try to keep your head straight as you pull your elbow down, extending your hand down your back. Switch.
>> Let your head fall gently towards your shoulder. Option: hold the stretch as you are, or gently assist the hold (same hand as shoulder). Option: take your opposite index finger, point down towards the floor to gently lengthen the stretch in the neck. Switch.
>> If your heart rate has returned all the way back down to where you started, press down hard on your red knob and come to a complete stop with one knee up. If your heart rate is still accelerated, keep pedaling. Hold onto the back of the seat and twist the lower back, looking over the back shoulder. Switch.
>> Holding onto the bike, take the inside of one foot. Tuck your knee under your hip, tuck in your tailbone. Squeeze the quadriceps. Hold.
>> Next, to deepen this stretch: inhale and as you exhale, pull the knee back an extra bit and push out forward through the hip flexor in the front of your leg.
>> Next, for an extra challenge to your balance: take your opposite hand and grab your heel. Pull the shoulders back and push out through the chest. Think about your core muscles to keep you steady. Not sucking them in, just paying attention to them. Hold. Don't be afraid to grab onto the bike if you find yourself unsteady.
>> Repeat for opposite leg.
>> Take the heel of your shoe to the lowest part of the bike frame, right there in the center.
>> First step: flex your foot as far as you can, toe up towards the ceiling. When you've got that flexion, hinge forward at your hip -- keeping your back as straight as you can. Reach for the ankle and hold without bouncing. The key to this stretch is the flexion in your ankle, not how high you have your leg -- the lower the better [that usually corrects people who attempt contraindicated positions].
>> Next, to deepen this stretch: Inhale - and as you exhale, flex your foot a little bit more -- toe towards you.
>> Next, for a bit more intensity: Take your opposite hand, turn away from the midline of your body and align your shoulders. Targets the top of your hamstrings as they adjoin your lower back, and even gently stretches the inner thigh a bit.
>> Repeat for opposite side.
>> Cross one shin over the opposite thigh, sit all the way back as though sitting in a chair.
>> To deepen this stretch: inhale -- as you exhale, sit back deeper.
>> Step up to the front or back of your bike, press the ball of your foot up against the flat part. Step in and hold. Switch.
FLOOR (ON MATS) -- if you have access to this in the room, fabulous. Otherwise, skip to the end and then encourage your students to join you in the gym's stretch area for this stuff. THIS is the stuff that makes a huge difference.
Here, I do a lot of combination stretches -- movements that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Repeatedly cue to remain oriented to breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. People forget to breathe when they exert themselves, as we know.
Start on lower back. Bring knees to chest. Takes tension off the lower back. Rock side to side, massaging the spine.
>> Extend both legs ahead of you. Squeeze one knee to your chest, sliding the opposite heel out along the floor -- extending the leg even further. Feel a gentle pull in the EXTENDED hip.
Hamstrings/Lower Leg (anterior tibialis, fibularis brevis, fibularis longus, gastrocnemius -- I don't think you're getting the soleus much here when the knee is extended, but maybe)
>> Extend your full leg, heel up towards the ceiling. Support your leg either behind your knee, behind your thigh, or walk your hands up your calf. Try to keep the leg straight, wherever you're supporting
>> Gently start to roll your ankle in one direction, slowly. Focus on making the motion a complete circle. If you start to detect that you are making ellipses or other fake circles, slow it down and really focus on making the motion circular. As your muscles fatigue, they don't want to contribute equally to this motion -- which makes the motion fall apart, and contributes to muscular imbalances. Slow it down until you can make it a circle.
>> Switch directions.
>> Flex the ankle up and down a few times to flush it out
>> One more time. One direction circles. Switch directions.
** I tell people that this exercise will not only help to prevent calf/hamstring soreness but will make them better cyclists. By giving the ankle more range of motion, you are better able to drop your heel in the 5 o'clock --> 7 o'clock portion of the pedal stroke. More power on that backstroke is HUGE. I tell people that I do ankle rolls all day long -- under my desk, waiting in line, in NYC when I used to spend hours on subways. Definitely NOT while driving everywhere now, though ;-)
>> Cross one shin over the opposite thigh. Reach through between your legs, pull that opposite thigh to your chest. Feel this pull in the outside of the glute on the crossed leg.
>> To deepen this stretch, inhale - as you exhale, pull the thigh closer to your chest.
>> Turn over onto your abdomen, face down towards the mat. Align your hands with your chest. Push up through the chest, giving a nice stretch to the lower back. Look straight ahead or up at the ceiling, whatever makes you happy.
>> Sit back over your heels, broadening the shoulder blades. Feel the stretch across the upper back.
More Hip Flexor Fun
>> Sit up into a kneeling position. Lunge out forward with one bent leg. Place all your body weight on the opposite hip flexor.
>> To deepen, inhale - as you exhale, press out forward a bit more.
>> Find a comfortable seated position of your choice
>> [I then explain how the trapezius is a muscle where many of us carry a lot of tension, and is the source of a great deal of neck pain and headaches. I mention that my trapezius ruins my life all day long, except for the moments in which I engage in the stretch we are about to attempt. I describe the anatomy of the trapezius - anchoring at the nuchal line (ie, "middle of the back of your head") and extending down most of the back.
>> Find a spot where you carry tension in that muscle. Apply firm pressure with the opposite hand. Not enough to cause pain. "Comfortably uncomfortable." Maintaining that pressure, raise the shoulder up as high as it goes. Hold. Lower as low as it goes. Hold. Repeat x10, then switch sides.
>> Return to kneeling position. Push off the knee, come up to a standing position
>> Reach up for our final stretch. Inhale up at center, exhale out to the side. Inhale back up center, exhale out to the other side. Inhale back up one more time, reach up as tall as you can - right through the core. And pull it down. Give yourself a round of applause!
Wow, I didn't realize how completely automatically scripted my cooldown/stretch cues were. This post has been quite strange to write.
Time to talk about my most important personal life upgrade in the past 5 years (only because my cycling shoes and heart rate monitor entered my life before then). Self-myofascial release -- aka "foam-rolling."
You've seen them around. They look like "noodles" on which to float in a pool, and you either see them laying around with nobody paying attention to them (because nobody has ever shown them how to use them) or people doing funky things with them. Foam rollers are dense cyllinders of styrofoam -- and the premise is that we use our own body weight against gravity to give our dense connective tissue (fascia) more flexibility/pliability. Connective tissue can become tight, knotted, and thick over time (especially after repetitive movements) -- which restricts our movement (i.e., with "tight hip flexors," it's hard to keep our knees from flaring out to the sides when we ride), and can cause pain/soreness (i.e., just ask anyone with a tight IT band to tell you how they enjoy their connective tissue immobility).
You can foam-roll ANYTHING. Your IT band, hamstrings, iliopsoas, quads, arms, chest, neck, back -- ANYTHING. I could describe a few positions but photos will be more helpful. Just Google "self myofascial release" and your body part of question, and you'll find illustrative photos all over the place.
There are multiple ways to use foam rollers to do this (i.e., rolling vs. holding a single spot). I recommend the latter, as it keeps the distribution of force even. Find a spot where you feel tight, line it up on top of the roller and stack as much body weight as possible onto that one spot. Hold 10-20 seconds, then move to another spot in the same area. Keep going.
When one first begins incorporating self-myofascial release, it hurts -- I'm not going to lie. The tighter you are, the more it hurts. The corollary to that is that, the more you do this --> the less tight you'll be --> the less it will hurt. Performing self-myofascial release 1-2x per DAY (even if you do not feel especially tight) is a solid preventative measure to keep the tissue that supports all of your muscles and bones in optimal conditioning.
Whew. No wonder I've been procrastinating writing this post for months. Hope it's helpful!
Let me know if you have any questions/comments, as always.
*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study
12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.