You might have heard that foam rolling and stretching are excellent means of increasing your range of motion and thereby improving your cycling performance. But no one has determined if the order in which you perform these exercises has any bearing on their effectiveness.
But now the Journal of Sports and Sciences has published research that suggests that there is an ideal combination of the two for cyclists. In a meta-analysis (which is the process of combining multiple studies on the same subject), the researchers looked at 12 studies involving both foam rolling and stretching, with emphasis on those that included performance parameters such as strength and height of a jump.
The researchers evaluated the effects of each exercise on its own and in combination, and they concluded that combining the two led to the greatest increase in range of motion, especially when doing the foam rolling first and then the stretching.
Andreas Konrad and his fellow researchers concluded: “Athletes under time constraints do not have to combine stretching with foam rolling in order to increase their ROM [range of motion] because the combination does not lead to any additional effects. However, if the goal is to also increase performance (e.g., strength, speed), the combination of foam rolling followed by stretching (but not vice versa) should be favoured compared to stretching alone.”
Physical therapists have known this for some time and employ just that sequence to increase flexibility and mobility. Physical therapist Carol Mack who owns CLE Sports PT & Performance told Runner’s World that foam rolling or any form of massage helps loosen tight muscles but most people don’t understand how. “The thought that scar tissue or adhesions in the muscle are ‘broken up’ by the roller is false,” she said. “What actually happens is that the deep pressure from the roller triggers a reflex in the muscle that causes it to relax.”
That relaxation makes stretching more effective afterwards, which is why foam rolling should come first if you combine it with stretching. Mack noted, however, that the foam rolling needs to be done correctly to be effective. She said that she often sees people rolling too quickly, which will not provide enough pressure on a tight muscle for that muscle to relax. “It should feel intense but tolerable,” she said. “Don’t move until you feel the tight area start to relax. Then move on to another sore spot.”
Once the foam rolling or massage is done, it should be followed by some type of active movement in order to use the muscle that has been worked, Mack said. The ideal follow-up activity is dynamic stretching, in which you are carrying out a slow activity to optimize your improved range of motion.
Dynamic stretches include a low lunge with a twist, the supine heel tap, and a glute bridge with a resistance band. These dynamic stretches will increase blood flow, thereby also increasing the range of motion in the joints. The warmed-up muscles will feel less stiff and your pedalling will be more fluid and more dynamic.
The great thing about these dynamic stretches is that they won’t take up much of your time. Three minutes is all you will have to devote to them. Three minutes for a better ride. That’s a great investment.