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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

1 February 2012

In the next few days I have to teach a young man some new skills, so I thought I'd share some of the background with all of you.


Most good coaches recommend stretching, but not every one tells why it's such a good idea. Here is the simple short answer:

All the skeletal muscles in your body come in pairs, agonists and antagonists. What one does, the other undoes. For every flexor there is an extensor, and they all work in tension with one another. So if your muscles are short and tight, each one has to work harder to overcome the tension of its partner. Loosen and lengthen your muscles by stretching, and the pairs work more efficiently. You go faster with less effort. Just think of how it feels like to begin running or rowing first thing in the morning. Words like "stiff" and "sore" and "slow" quickly come to mind. After you warm up, things come easier. Stretching is like warming up in a controlled setting . . . with the added benefit of lessening the risk of injury.

So do it. Stretching's a no-brainer.


When I got to my first FISA Championship 35 years ago, I smiled to see that there was a tent full of massage tables set up in the boat area, and it was always full of East Bloc team masseurs and their athletes before and after their workouts and races. Most of the Western rowers paid no attention to what went on inside that tent, but I knew very well from my years as a racing cyclist.

Massage is another no-brainer. But why? Why is it such a good idea. Here is another simple short answer:

What physical training does is challenge your body in ways it's not used to. The heart, lungs, muscles and tendons are pushed beyond their comfort levels. They are strained, actually injured on the cellular level. This elicits a response, sort of like your body saying, "Well, that was no fun. We have to repair this damage right away, and just in case we are subjected to more of the same sometime soon, let's build back bigger and stronger so we will be better prepared the next time."

What this means is that you as an athlete don't get faster during a workout. You get faster between workouts, so rest and recovery is the key.

How do muscles rest and recover? The system of arteries uses blood to carry to the muscles the oxygen and nutrients need to repair and rebuild, and the system of veins uses the same blood to carry away the waste products from the damaged muscles. But the recirculating blood system is not perfectly efficient. The heart pumps blood to the muscles through the arteries, but there is no pump to get the blood back to the heart. Instead, the veins have a series of one-way valves that prevent blood from going the wrong way and returning to the muscles, and then whenever the muscles surrounding the veins flex, that tends to squeeze the blood in the veins the only way it can go, namely back toward the heart. It works . . . but not perfectly.

That's where massage comes in. If you start at the end of your extremities and squeeze toward the heart, sort of like squeezing the bottom of a tube of toothpaste, you help flush all those waste products away from the muscles and back toward the heart and lungs, where the blood is cleansed and replenished with oxygen and nutrients and made ready to begin the cycle again.

And you can feel it. It's like a warm glow when the muscles get flushed. Tired and stiff and sore get replaced by warm and relaxed and happy. It really is remarkable, and if you're at all skeptical, just try it once. You'll become an instant believer. I guarantee it.

While Lance Armstrong was competing, his team made sure he got a professional massage at the beginning and end of every day. But what do the rest of us serious cyclists do if we don't have a team masseur waiting to give us a massage. We do it ourselves. How do you do that? Well, the arms and the neck and the back are a challenge to deal with yourself, but the legs are a piece of cake, and they are the key muscles for cyclists and rowers to massage.

Sit yourself down with your legs bare and your back leaning against something . . . on a bed or on a flat surface against a wall or a tree. Bend your knees, put your feet flat on the ground, and relax your legs completely. Make sure your calfs and thighs are limp. Start at the ankles, and with your hand squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, moving from the bottom to the top of each calf. You'll feel the blood moving. Repeat three times on each one. Think about squeezing the toothpaste up to the top of the tube. In seconds you will feel a warm buzz from your calfs right up to your heart. Finish by grasping one ankle with your hand and sliding your firm grip up to the top of the calf. This does a final flush. Now do the other. You should feel the buzz up into your head by now. Your whole cardiovascular system has already gotten a jump start.

Next the thighs, each of which is made up of four bundles of muscle stretching from the knee to the hip. Pick one bundle, start at the knee and alternate with your two thumbs pressing hard from each side of the bundle and stroking across the middle. Work up from the knee to the thigh, making a sort of herring-bone pattern with the alternating thumb motions. Repeat the process once and move on to the next bundle until you have done all four on each leg. Then flush each thigh as you flushed each calf. Repeat the whole process at least one more time.

End with a stretch of the calfs and the quads, and you're done. Five minutes max, and the benefits are immediately evident to you. You feel them right away. And if you then jump right on a bike or into a boat or onto the road, your legs won't be fighting you and fighting themselves the way they used to during the first 15 minutes.

Massage before workouts for sure, but here's the key: Massage after workouts to speed recovery, and you will sleep better and be able to increase your training load. Remember, you get faster between workouts, and massage maximizes the mechanics of rest and recovery.

What about shaving your legs like cyclists do? How about using massage oil? Both make your hands move across the skin more easily. Both improve the massage. Neither is crucial. Self-massaging your hairy, dry legs works just fine, but suit yourself.

How about hamstrings? They are hard to reach and are tendons mostly, so they don't get much blood flow and massaging is less useful. But stretching the hamstrings is very useful. So is keeping them warm, so keep them covered, even on cool spring days. Especially on cool spring days. Invest in Spandex.

What if your forearms or some muscles in your shoulders or back are bothering you specifically? Well, you can't reach these with self-massage . . . but if you can find a teammate or friend who also needs a massage, perhaps you can trade off.

Isn't this discussion a bit rudimentary. Of course it is. Would you have read it if it wasn't? Think of it as Self-Massage for Dummies, but the only dummies are rowers who don't self-massage.

Still skeptical? Close the door, drop your pants, and try it. Nobody will catch you.

Now do you believe me? I wasn't exaggerrating. It's a total no-brainer.

Coaches, what do you think? An extra length by the end of the season? Two?