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Advice from a flexibility 'champion'

Published December 24. 2010 05:00PM

I was the captain of the baseball team my senior year, so I led the team through the regimented 20-minute stretch routine that began every practice but only because of my captaincy.

Not, in Coach Seip's opinion, because I was very flexible.

In fact, he used to walk between the rows of players and poke fun at my lack of flexibility. One day as we were doing the single-leg standing hamstring stretch that required a teammate to grab one leg at the ankle and raise it as high as possible, he stopped beside the first baseman on the jayvee squad and barked out, "Good god, lad, just because you could replace our fearless leader next year, doesn't mean you have to stretch like him."

Some players could actually get their leg atop the helper's shoulder. The other first baseman and I couldn't even get close.

Now this past cycling season was a confusing one for me. Interspersed between some solid performances a first place in a hilly 75-mile road race, a fourth at the state masters road race, a second at the state masters time trial, and a first place at the final time trial of the season I experienced a number of sub-par time-trial performances.

A number of thirds and fourths and fifths where I felt I could have won.

So I went to John Ireland, bike-fit expert and owner, of Sleeping Dogs Pro Cycles in Topton, PA, seeking answers.

To provide them, Ireland needed to precisely fit me to my time trial bike. He had me to warm up on a stationary bicycle and then tested my flexibility.

The first stretch was similar to the standing hamstring stretch Coach Seip had us do, but Ireland had me lie on an exercise table while he manipulated each leg and checked the angle with a medical protractor.

Afterwards, he looked a me quizzically, and said, "I don't believe this is right."

He stretched both legs again and made calculations. I remembered Coach Seip's taunts as beads of perspiration trickled from my forehead.

He checked the flexibility of my hips and then shared with me what he hadn't believed. At first, he didn't think it was possible that I could be so flexible.

That's because Ireland had stretched and measured somewhere between 250 and 300 cyclists some national class, some pros but no one had ever demonstrated the degree of flexibility I had.

A few weeks later when I went for a second fitting on my road bike, he greeted me by saying, "I just fit a former female gymnast, but her numbers weren't as good as yours."

So why share all this with you? Because Coach Seip was right. I really hadn't been that flexible.

I crashed near the end of the 2003 season and the pain was so intense that I assumed I had broken my hip. While the x-rays were negative, the doctor said the damage was still significant and the effects would linger.

He was correct. The discomfort forced me to shorten my typical weekend training rides for months and made training in the aerodynamic position needed for time trialing impossible.

Impossible that is, until I created a series of stretches specific to the time trial position and did them four times a week as part of my weightlifting workout for a few months.

The stretching may have done more than just make me more flexible, for the next year I won the inaugural Pain Mountain Time Trial, finished second in the masters state time trial, and did well enough overall to claim the Pennsylvania BAR (Best All-Around Rider) championship.

My stretching program can be summed up in a simple saying:

Get invested and get relaxed.

Part of my problem when I was stretching during high school for baseball (and basketball for that matter) is that I really didn't believe the stretching served any purpose. The purpose of the stretches was never explained, so it was hard for me to invest much effort.

For any stretching program to work, you have to believe the time you spend doing it is productive. Way back then, I didn't.

But that may not have been my fault.

That's because of how we did our stretching ballistically, almost bouncing sorts of movements and before any sort of a warm-up.

What I would feel years ago during that standing hamstring stretch were my hamstrings contracting, not elongating exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen.

For muscles to elongate, they need to be both warm and relaxed.

The stretches I do now are relaxed but progressive and focus on attaining what bodybuilders call the mind-to-muscle link.

If I do the typical toe touch, for instance, just the tips of my fingers touch the ground for the first 10 seconds or so as I breath deeply, concentrating on feeling and relaxing the hamstrings. After that position feels comfortable, I breath deeply and picture gravity pulling down my torso.

I make sure that I hyperextend the hamstrings as I descend and before you know it, my palms are touching the floor.

I continue breathing deeply, trying to "clear" the muscles of any sort of tension.

In another 20 seconds or so, I stop and do a stretch that targets the quadriceps. After that, I stretch the glutes and the lower back together.

I do three different movements that target those same muscles, do all six a second time, and the whole sequence only takes about five minutes.

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