Faster with less fatigue starts with improved range of
By John Howard and Dr. Ernie Ferrel
One of the bittersweet ironies of life is that we use it
up in learning how to live it. By the time we’ve matured
into what we hope is deep wisdom, there’s not much time
left. We’ve all heard variations of the "if only"
statement, as in "If only I’d known, at age 20, what I
know today." This irony plays out in an athletic career
as frequently as it does in life itself. Many aging
athletes, who take up the challenge of the metabolic
barrier too late, end up singing the "if only" blues.
The performance boost they begin to enjoy brings the
realization, too late, that if they had used flexibility
training to challenge the barrier at the beginning of
their athletic careers instead of at the end, their
performance achievements would have been far greater.
When we’re young, with power to burn, we give little
thought to challenging the metabolic barrier. Since we
seem to be gaining strength from year to year, we tend
not to look too closely at our performance limitations
and our diminishing returns. We think we don’t need
deeper understanding of the inner world of high
performance and thus we don’t seek it. Only later, when
age begins to take its toll, do we feel ourselves up
against that metabolic barrier. Only then do we begin to
explore the inner realm, trying to compensate for
diminishing power. In the process, we discover the
central performance secret of flexibility training, and
we realize belatedly that it would have made a huge
difference in our younger years. If we had practiced
flexibility training when we thought we didn’t need it,
our performance peaks would have been much higher. Let’s
take a look at the benefits of this training, with the
idea of minimizing the likelihood of our singing the "if
The training focus of most young cyclists is on
developing a strong cardiovascular base. They are right
to do so. There are many good reasons why this is
central in traditional approaches to training. However,
to avoid the "if only" blues, it’s important to go
beyond this. While you have to develop your
cardiovascular base if you are to actualize your
inherited metabolic potential, it’s not enough. As with
any type of repetitive training, there’s a point of
diminishing returns. Mature, diligent athletes of any
age will look deeper, and they’ll discover, in
flexibility training, ways of breaking through the
It must be noted that increased performance gains are
harder and harder to come by over time. With each small
incremental improvement, there is an increased potential
for negative cost. Ramped up metabolic training
certainly offers slight gains in cardiovascular
efficiency, but with a significantly greater potential
for overuse injuries. This is especially true at the
With flexibility training, improvements in overall range
of motion will ultimately produce a more effective and
more powerful pedaling stroke. In our next article, we
will discuss more precisely how that improvement in
pedal stroke translates into a more effective set up for
ultras. For now, let’s keep our priorities straight and
dial in some greater range of movement first.
Instead of focusing entirely on developing the
cardiovascular parameters for heart rate and recovery,
cyclists need to also look at a strong precise
flexibility program as part of any pre-training
schedule. It is our strong belief that this is a
necessity in any successful cycling program.
Analyze then Mobilize
In cycling, if you go five miles an hour faster, let’s
say from 25 miles an hour to 30 mph, the increase in
energy output is enormous. Yet a cyclist going 30 miles
per hour still only outputs enough energy to fire a row
of light bulbs. The solution is greater efficiency. How
is this achieved? In the last issue of Ultracycling I
presented Ian Jackson’s breakthrough BreathPlay Zooming
CD (www.BreathPlay.com). In this issue I want to take a
different but complementary approach.
First, let’s look at the obvious. We know that air
resistance is a huge limiting factor to speed, so
aerodynamic considerations are often critical. But many
times the most efficient aero positions come into
conflict with the individual biomechanics of the body. A
cyclist who is basically stiff, with limited range of
motion in the joints, will either be unable to attain an
efficient aero position or unable to maintain it.
All the information we are about to present is based on
our years of personal experience and experimentation.
Over the last seven years we have been exploring new
facets of performance through a combination of body and
bike awareness. We want to give you a detailed overview
of our process so that you can apply it to yourself.
In looking at the body it is important to determine the
individual’s strengths and weaknesses. We start the
process with the athlete’s own bike on the CompuTrainer,
utilizing the Spin Scan program to get baseline data
about the athlete’s power stroke. We ask about patterns
of pain that may have become chronic, and whether the
pain is constant or intermediate, localized or diffuse,
etc. Many of the causes of these cycling problems will
be obvious to us from watching Spin Scan.
The color bars on the Spin Scan bar-graph start bobbing
as soon as the athlete starts pedaling. We warm our
riders up and then take them to perceived anaerobic
threshold, say 10-15% below max heart rate. At this
level of exertion we get an accurate picture of their
pedal stroke. We watch the lower valleys on both right
and left sides, noticing the percentage of watts for
each. A common problem is a lack of muscular force, and
a lack of consistent force at the bottom of the stroke.
We define this area as the recovery portion of the
stroke, at roughly 6 to 12 on the clock face. This tells
us the hip flexors muscles, primarily the Psoas and
Rectus Femoris are not holding up their side of the
muscular equation. The solution is to systematically
stretch, then strengthen them with single side isolated
pedaling or better yet, Power Cranks tm. As the muscles
become more flexible and stronger, and the neuromuscular
pathways are reinforced, a smoother more powerful stroke
Another common related problem is the pattern of power
spikes on the right and left sides at the high peak of
the stroke, indicating a lack of smoothly vectored force
to the pedals. These are obvious when the color bars are
higher or wider at the peak on one side, at top dead
center. This problem is usually brought about by a
splayed knee, a tight external hip rotator, and or a
tight I.T. band.
The next step is to create a personal protocol based on
diagnosing the results from the analysis. Once we
analyze the athlete’s muscular imbalance, muscular
weakness, or leg length discrepancy, we formulate a
corrective program. Finally, we provide a clear path for
advancement in a set of prioritized stretches that may
initially look like they have little to do with actually
riding the bike.
Most of our clients are pro and amateur triathletes and
cyclists. Some of them have either not stretched at all
or have stretched very little. Many of those who have
been stretching have actually increased their tightness
by improper technique; hence, our first priority is
teaching correct stretching technique. Usually we begin
with some introductory movements to "wake up" the core
muscles and elevate body temperature. We have found that
this reduces both the exacerbation of old injuries and
the creation of new ones.
We begin with a series of light active and passive
isolated stretches that are derived from works of Dr.
Ferrel, Bob Anderson—note his cycling series in the his
book Stretching--Arron Mattes and his series of active
isolated stretches. Massage therapist Doug Thralls, and
Chris Maund, of the C.H.E.K. Institute in Encinitas CA.
These are followed by a strengthening program, which is
initially based on floor exercises using foam rollers
and a large ball. Later, the progression is into a gym,
and finally to the bike. This sequence is extremely
important. If you make the mistake of strengthening the
muscles before exploring their full range of motion, you
are potentially limiting your power output. This work is
a very individualized form of training, and it begins
with personal observation and understanding from the
initial position analysis on the bike.
The athlete must start with a pre-training stretching
program. We feel the best time to start this is
immediately and it should be maintained for life. The
strength-training phase usually comes along in late
October or early November. To be redundant, we want to
make sure the inflexibility issues have been
successfully acknowledged, understood, and treated
before we start strengthening the muscles. We find there
are some common denominators in the flexibility issues
of cyclists, and the following stretches address these.
Still, each person is an individual with slightly
different needs, so the generic program is never fool
The importance of Hip Flexors and Quads
Following the bio-kinetic chain, the first muscles we
look at are the hip flexors and quads. One of the
strongest hip flexors is the Psoas muscle. When the
Psoas is properly engaged, it adds tremendously to
pedaling power. The same is true when the vastus
medalius is properly engaged. A stretching/
strengthening program at home and in the gym to mobilize
and strengthen these muscles should be a priority.
Simple exercises such as walking lunges with care being
taken to place the knee in front of the ankle replicate
the precise motor response of pedaling. In the gym,
isolating the hip flexors--and hamstrings in the reverse
position--with lower pulleys is a great way to power up
the body for improved turn over. The on-bike drills,
which usually include a series of specific hill repeats,
integrate and fine-tune the muscles for a more effective
transfer of power into pedaling. Next month we will
discuss these in detail. Along with the vastus medalis,
the other quadriceps muscles need to be trained through
focused isolation exercises. If you can train these
ancillary muscles, our experience is that you may or may
not see dramatic increases in power and performance, but
you will certainly have the ability to sustain more
power for a longer period of time.
There are a few mechanical devices available that
improve the pedaling stroke by activating the hip
flexors. Dr. Frank Day’s Power Cranks is probably the
best of the functional systems.
It is important to activate the hip flexors, but for the
majority of cyclists, the five-muscle group that
externally rotates the hips is probably the most
troublesome, since it causes splayed knees. This problem
is exacerbated by various causes, such as poor body
biomechanics, bad habits and trauma. Their chronic
contraction causes splayed knees and a consequent loss
of power in the most powerful arc of the pedaling
stroke. Splayed knees also create poor aerodynamics and
a decrease in stability, especially on descents.
Obviously, a seat that is positioned too low for the
individual will also play a part in this condition. The
ideal is to have the legs come straight up and down,
like pistons in an engine, with the proper amount of
flexion to maximize your power safely. See figure #
More on Stretching
Stretching needs to be a part of your life style. It is
most effective right after a ride and just before bed.
It is interesting to learn, as we get older, that the
tendency of youth to devalue stretching is virtually
universal. As we age, poor postural habits, past
injuries, and increasing stiffness, sneak up on us.
Finally, we can no longer deny what has happened to us.
We move with a certain rigidity and we’re prone to
injuries that are slow to heal.
Our focus at the School of Champions is to design
personal programs that address each of the above issues.
The emphasis is on using appropriate stretching
techniques to restore proper biomechanics, to increase
active range of motion, and to reduce the potential for
injury. We modify each specific stretching program to
fit the individual’s needs. We work systematically,
analyzing from head to toe, slowly and methodically. Our
intention is to prescribe the most individualized
program for each of our athlete/clients. This
therapeutic approach to mobilization and flexibility
takes stretching to a new level. We are constantly
reevaluating, changing and emphasizing different and
modified stretches as our athlete/clients show positive
In the next article I will discuss how we use Spin Scan
to position our riders for maximum power, comfort and
safety, and to test for changes in equipment. We will
further explain how these changes lead us to develop our
individualized programs for strength training.
Do all stretches at least 5 days per week. Make time to
stretch, convince yourself to look forward to it and
make it fun! *
Trapezius/sub occipitals. Our objective is to balance
and strengthen the posterior, thoracic muscles such as
the traps, levator scapulae and rhomboids to increase
the biomechanical efficiency and aerodynamics of the
individual. Tuck the chin, find the bony lump at the
base of the skull, and pull gently to the side. After
several seconds, decrease the pull, and lift the
opposite shoulder. Repeat 8-10 times for both sides,
before riding. An excellent companion stretch is to
simply hang from a chin up bar, both over and
underhanded for 15-30 seconds for both.
Foam Roller across spine. Counter stretches the spine,
opens up the intercostal muscles of the chest, and helps
avoid stooped posture from long hours in the saddle.
Work the roll from T4-T12, spending 10-15 seconds per 5
sections of the spine. When finished roll off the side
and avoid doing a crunch.
Tight External Hip Rotators. Their contracture and
reduced range of motion is one of the main culprits for
splayed knees and a loss of power in the most powerful
arc of the pedaling stroke. Splayed knees also create
poor aerodynamics and a decrease in stability,
especially on descents.
While on back, bend the knee and use a strap or rope to
pull the foot across the body with the upper leg at 90
degrees. Run the rope under the calf to support the
knee. 8-10 reps, both sides, before the ride.
(# 3-6 are all performed while lying on the back.) I.T.
bands. With torso and lower body straight run the strap
under the calf to support the joint. With the hips flat
on the floor, bring the leg low across the body and keep
the toes pointed at the ceiling. 8-10 reps, one extended
out-breath, both sides, before and after the ride.
Bilateral piriformis stretch. Bring the knees together
very slightly with the feet as far apart as possible.
This is a passive stretch held for 15-30 seconds before
and after the ride.
Tight Hamstrings. When these guys are tight you will
have a limited forward bend at the hip. The pelvis is
pulled into a posterior tilt, thus countering your
ability to flatten the back and sit low on the bike.
Tight hamstrings also rob horsepower.
With a rolled up towel in the small of the back and the
non-stretched foot straight against a wall. Anchor the
strap around the ball of the foot and pull back 8-10
times—both legs--with a slow extended out-breath on each
rep. Before and after the ride please.
Other areas of concern:
* Weak Vastus Medalius Obiques v.m.o. muscles. One of the
primary quad muscles involved in smooth pedaling action.
When the v.m.o. is weak, the knee joint can no longer
track smoothly, thus contributing to knee pain which can
quickly accelerate to chronic degeneration if left
untreated. This problem is common among runners who take
up cycling with no corrective strength training. An
effective way to treat this problem is to repeat leg
extensions working one side at a time with very gradual
increases in weight. Point the foot in.
* Weak Core muscles. Abdominals, Obliques, Erector Spinae
and Quadratus Lumborum. The Q.L. starts going south
under pressure from big gears and low aero positions.
Eventually the Q.L. fades out with a accompanying dull
ache in the low back area that seems to never go away.
The remaining core muscles are also compromised and
become less effective. When this happens the Glutes
begin to tire rapidly, and speed and power drop
* I want to refer again to Ian Jackson’s Zooming CD,
which utilizes a specific breathing technique critical
for activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Activation promotes a relaxed muscle release and blood
flow, thus greatly improving the quality of the stretch.
The technique will also add a surprisingly pleasant
sensation to your stretching.
John Howard has been a competitive cyclist since 1965
and a cycling coach since 1982. His School of Champions
athletes have won over 150 national and world titles
including RAAM. Howard is a three-time Olympic cyclist
with 15 national championships and an Ironman Triathlon
victory to his credit. He is also a member of the USA
Cycling Hall of Fame. Howard has written four cycling
books: The Cyclist’s Companion, Multifitness, Pushing
The Limits and Dirt!
[email protected] or
Dr. Ernie Ferrel is the past Vice President of ACA
Sports Council, Director of Chiropractic Services for
USAT, Certified Elite Cycling coach and creator of
Dynamic Motion Therapy. He can be reached at 805
For more information:
Ian Jackson at [email protected] or
www.breathplay.comChris Maund for the C.H.E.K.