CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS
The microtrauma will leads to tissue swelling (edema) and an influx of inflammatory cells. Then, in the healing phase, you can develop scar tissue in the body of the muscle. During the initial inflammatory phase of this process the muscle often responds with a reflex spasm which you feel as a tightness or knot.
Stretching after exercise, and massage (where someone else is stretching the muscle in question for you), can decrease the muscle spasm and minimize edema and subsequent fibrous tissue formation. Sports massage (as opposed to deep tissue and other forms of massage) can be an important adjunct to a rigorous training program. For cyclists, the most common muscles requiring post exercise stretching or massage are the hamstrings, quadriceps, and shoulder muscles. As an inflamed muscle, or one in spasm, is uncomfortable to pressure, it is easy for you to identify your own areas of overuse.
When massaging a muscle, two approaches can be used. First is to apply pressure on the area of discomfort (the palpable knot) with the muscle in a neutral, relaxed position. The pressure is then moved along the direction of the muscle fibers (remember to massage in the direction of the muscle fibers - the direction of pull of the muscle) to counteract the spasm and "work out" the pain. This is particularly effective when combined with active expiration (breathing out) which also helps to dampen the neural spasm reflex. Active massage involves applying steady pressure to the tender area or muscle, and the extremity is actively put through it's range of motion, contracting and moving the muscle beneath the point of pressure. The theory being that this involves the nerve/muscle unit and may retrain the entire motor unit to sustain a decrease in spasm after the massage session has been completed.
In 2016 the New York Times published a nice summary of the current thoughts on stretching. There are 2 types of stretching. Static stretching is holding a steady stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Although it had been taught for years that static stretching (after a warm up) decreased injuries and thus improved performance, it actually decreases the force of the subsequent muscle contraction for up to 30 minutes.
Dynamic stretching refers to a stretch of the muscle while it is moving and only requires holding the stretch for several seconds. It increases flexibility/range of motion as well as the power of contraction. Dynamic stretching is sport specific. Here are several bicycling specific examples: (1 and 2).
It is important to stretch only after the muscle to be stretched has been actively warmed up - either with 5 or 10 minutes of exercise (or in the post exercise period). This increases blood flow and actually physically warms the muscle tissue itself. The warmup increases tissue elasticity and reduces the frequency of injuries directly related to the stretching itself. It doesn't have to be a vigorous warm up - maybe 40 - 50% of your aerobic maximum.
We know that static stretching does not decrease injury rates (in fact, if done incorrectly static stretching increases the injury rate compared to no stretching), but there have been several studies demonstrating a decreased injury rates after a program of dynamic testing. (Here is one). For those of you interested in additional web material on stretching, Liam Keever has put together a comprehensive site with a detailed stretching program at Bodymind Resources.
TO ROLL OR NOT TO ROLL, THAT IS THE QUESTION
It's not unusual to see someone sitting around in camp with a wooden or foam roller, working on their quads and hamstrings. Does it work? This recent review from Medscape.com pulls together the most recent scientific evidence. Below are selected quotes from that article.
And for a few more ideas on rolling, a nice regimen.
Stiffness (or tightness) in a muscle is probably related to some mild "spasm" in the muscle fibers - along with edema or swelling from microtrauma. But when you get a muscle cramp you are seeing spasm at its finest. There is not any single cause of the spontaneous contraction, or cramp, but there are several common scenarios including exercising at a level greater than your training, and water and electrolyte imbalances. Here is more detail on muscle cramps and additional thoughts on treatment.