TOOLBOX: Static Stretching doesn’t resolve muscle tightness, and neither does strength training alone. Soft Tissue work is the missing linchpin, but you don’t need your own personal soigneur, using a foam roller can have significant benefits for warm-up, flexibility, recovery and better overall cycling performance. Here’s how to use it…
As our miles (and hours) on the bike continue to slowly accumulate throughout our riding careers there is much that we learn about life, our environment, and those whose company we enjoy while riding. While there are many positives that come from our time out on the road, one thing is not so great for our overall health:
The changes in our muscle length and balance at each of the joints due to the positions we hold while riding.
While this is not something you’d necessarily think of when it comes to the “effects” of riding your bike, these changes over time have a compounding effect. Yes, the very same kind of compound effect is something that is great for your investment portfolio and riding fitness, but in this instance it has a significantly negative effect.
Why is Soft Tissue Work Important?
As we go through our life there are many adjustments our bodies make according to our environment, repetitive movements, and stressors we experience throughout our day. Many of these adaptations we hardly notice as they happen slowly over time. Examples of such include:
● Changes in posture due to daily movement habits (also called engrams).
● Changes in movement patterns due to pain or poor muscle activation.
● Weight gain due to stress, poor eating, or poor sleeping habits.
We’ll dive into many of these items in upcoming posts, but for today, we just want to get you started on a simple, yet highly effective daily habit that will have wonderful rewards for you, should you do it properly and consistently.
Muscles have 3 primary jobs in the body as it pertains to supporting and moving the skeleton:
1. Protect a Joint
2. Stabilize a joint while an adjacent joint moves
3. To move a joint
When a muscle is tight, it is effectively working to do it’s #1 job: protecting a joint. This is where things get tricky, as the joint that is being protected isn’t always clearly connected to the muscle which is tight. A great example of this in cyclists is lower back pain. Often times hamstring stretching is looked to to help decrease pain. However, upon a quick movement analysis, we often find that the riders hip flexors and/or calves are also extremely tight, which often is accompanied by a kyphotic curvature (upper back rounded forward) as well as forward head posture, and poor gluteal recruitment/strength lead to the pain in the back.
Soft tissue work (also called mobilization) has a positive impact on joint positions, as it helps muscles return to better resting lengths, thus taking stress off of muscles & tissues which are out of alignment, and unable to do their job as intended.
With just 6-8 minutes a day of soft tissue self-mobility, also known as “Foam Rolling” you can decrease or rid yourself of those nagging aches and pains, improve your posture, increase your abilities on the bike, and generally just feel better.
The idea behind the foam roller is to release tight spots within the muscle, hitting key “trigger points” allowing the muscle to shift toward its optimal resting length.
Part of a Holistic Approach
To treat the issue in full, we will need to do a proper strength training program, but it all starts with beginning to work on the affected soft tissues, getting those in shortened positions to begin to slowly release, while those which have been lengthened begin to shorten, and firing up other muscles that have shut down for one reason or another.
If you’d like to learn more about this, you can listen in to the 3rd episode of my podcast “The Strong Savvy Cyclist & Triathlete” with Dr. Kasey Hill, where we discuss running, strength training, and common challenges for runners. We talk quite a bit about hip extension & tight hamstrings, as well as the importance of feet, and it is packed full of great information to help you better understand the balance that happens in the body.
Foam Rolling Cautions
If a muscle or spot is “hot” (there is noticeable pressure or discomfort) we’ll stay on that area for 10-15 seconds, or until it releases/opens up. This has been described as “the muscle melting” on the foam roller. However if a muscle does not have a “hot spot”, we want to simply move on to the next area.
Of note, when foam rolling we do NOT want to feel:
● Sharp pain
● Pins and needles
● Loss of sensation
And this is where many well-intending athletes tend to go wrong and do too much (20+ minutes on the roller). We need to be careful so as not to upset the “status quo” of the muscles and joints too much, as this can lead to increases in pain, and to even worse: an injury.
Choosing the Right Foam Roller
When selecting a foam roller, you want to choose one which allows you to feel some pressure, but not immense pressure or pain.
Everyone has a different level of tolerance with the roller, and just like selecting a saddle, we want to choose the one that is right for you. There are generally 3 levels of foam roller density: Light, Medium, and Hard.
There are also rollers with spikes, should you feel this is best for you. I generally suggest a “regular” foam roller, 3 ft (1m) in length, as it allows us to utilize it for other exercises as well. If you travel, a shorter 1.5 ft roller may be better, as you’ll be able to use it more regularly.
How to Foam Roll
We can do this by following a simple and easy 6-8 minute routine on the foam roller after each ride. The key here is CONSISTENCY.
Remember, the muscles #1 job in the body as it pertains to movement is PROTECT THE JOINT. If a muscle is tight, it is trying to protect the joint. Small, steady doses of foam rolling over a period of 2-4 weeks will begin to yield some fantastic results when done properly.
Cycling Power Massage: Foam Roller for Cycling recovery & health PART 1- The Legs
Cycling Tips: Foam Roller for Cycling recovery & health Part 2- Upper body
Don’t make the mistake that most cyclists do, and ignore the upper body. There are many issues which stem from the upper body, and soft tissue work sets the foundation for us to see resolutions to those issues.
Each of these exercises should be done for 30 seconds the first time through. While this may take you closer to 12-15 minutes, this is acceptable, and expected for the first 1-3 sessions ONLY, as you’re just learning the feel and what to expect from each positioning of the foam roller.
Why not static stretching?
Many of us have been taught to perform static stretches to help keep us nimble and loose. While static stretching serves its role in maintaining healthy movement patterns and posture, soft tissue work has consistently coming out on top as a better, more effective approach to help maintain healthy muscle function.
Numerous Studies have shown that static stretching before dynamic performance (i.e. sport) reduces performance, yet many continue this practice before exercise in an almost dogmatic fashion.
However, soft tissue mobilization combined with dynamic warm-up exercises before an athletic session leads to increased range of motion (flexibility), and can help a muscle which has been in a shortened resting length, move towards it’s optimal resting length, thus allowing it to perform more as designed and boosting your performances.
We’ll get into pre-event soft tissue work and dynamic warm-ups in upcoming articles.
There is much more to cover on the topic of soft tissue work, but these exercises will help you build a great foundation, and learn to connect more with your body, allowing us to build you from the ground up.
Until next time, remember to train smarter, not harder, because it’s all about YOU!
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