Yoga for Cyclists
By Julie Westlin-Naigus
Three years ago I found the love of my life. Her name was “Black Stallion” and she was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me. She was a matte black Specialized Allez road bike, and from the moment I sat on that saddle, I never wanted to get off.
Most cyclists probably remember their first road bike and the exuberance and freedom felt out on the open road. Never in their right mind did they think about riding 5,000 miles in one year or finishing centuries and perhaps even riding until they almost cried. But in the end that is what tends to happen, and the beauty of it all is seeing results that cannot help but make you want more.
However, the one thing that cyclists tend to not be proud or even conscious of is their tight hips, the pain in their lower backs, the lack of upper body strength, or the multiple injuries throughout their bodies. What us cyclists tend to forget is that we are not invincible; we are slowly destroying our bodies and causing irreversible damage on the inside even though, on the outside, we look and feel strong.
For the last five years, I have been working with athletes who push themselves to the limit and are constantly looking for better tools to assist them in reaching their goals. I find that athletes are turned off by yoga initially because they tend to believe that it is too hard, too easy, or will distract them from their training. This misconception is far from the truth because with the right program, yoga can fit in perfectly with any athletes training and racing schedule.
I will admit that I find myself in the same boat — I want to be on my bicycle as much as possible — but for every day on my bike the more my body screams for relief. Through my yoga background, I gained the mind/body connection that helps balance out the destructive physiological effects of my riding and thus gives me a heightened awareness of my form, strength, focus, stamina and breath on the bike.
I emphasize to my resistant cyclist friends that yoga is the best cross-training tool out there. It can help anyone increase efficiency, decrease injury, encourage speedier recovery, reduce stress and lead to more enjoyment on the bike. Many riders recognize that they are tight and lack a balanced training regimen. They tend to be scared of these deficiencies and therefore continue to stray from anything resembling stretching. I stress to my friends, clients, and now you, that a few hours a week of yoga can help reenergize your training and help you better understand your potential on the bike. Here are four basic, yet essential, benefits you will get out of yoga:
In my own yoga practice as well as in my Yoga and Cycling class, I use simple postures that increase range of motion and flexibility. There are three forms of stretching that I bring to a cyclist’s program: passive, static and isometric.
Passive, or relaxed stretching, is defined as assuming a position and holding it with the assistance of other body parts, a partner, or other apparatus such as a strap or wall. This form of stretching is a powerful tool that lets you maintain the posture for a considerable amount of time, thus allowing the stretch to go deeper into the muscles and connective tissues.
Static stretching, on the other end, means gradually lengthening the muscle to its farthest point while the body is at a resting position and holding it for 30 seconds to two minutes. It loosens up the muscles and allows deeper relaxation and lengthening.
Isometric stretching is a type of static stretching that involves resistance through an isometric contraction (example: no motion while pushing against a wall) and can be the fastest route to increasing static-flexibility. Because the static form can be difficult for the tight cyclist, it can be helpful to incorporate both isometric and passive methods as an integral part of a routine.
Posture: Reclining Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana).
2. Pedal Stroke
There is no way of getting around it, if you ride your bike then you are consistently shortening and tightening your leg and glute muscles with every pedal stroke. Through yoga, you will develop longer and leaner muscles and take pressure off the joints. If you continue to ride with tight legs and hips, your hard work will eventually become ineffective. So, give the lower body a little T.L.C with some hamstring and glute stretching.
Posture: Supine Pigeon (Supta Kapotasana)
3. Core and Lower Back Strength
I’ll just come out and say it: cyclists have a weak core! The biggest issue with this is that the core muscles are what protects the lower back, and seeing that cyclists are constantly in a hunched over position, they need all the back support they can get. So, the two most important things to take away from this is that twists and core work can help give you your body back. There are significant studies showing that cyclists tend to develop osteoporosis at an early age (see http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/is-bicycling-bad-for-your-bones/). Take the time to become aware of your body and the effects of your sport.
Posture: Knee Down Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
4. Breathe Deep
When a cyclist learns how to effectively breathe, the inhale will deliver oxygen to the overworked muscles and the exhale will release toxins like lactic acid and carbon dioxide from the muscle. Through yogic breath (also called Pranayama) a cyclist will build a greater pain threshold, stronger lungs and will relax more on the bike.
Posture: Three-part Breath (Dirgha Breath) — also known as deep belly breathing, is a calming and relaxing breath that increases lung capacity and blood flow to muscles while removing toxins. Breathe deep into your belly, ribs and then upper chest slowly, sip in the breath and then reverse the breathe on the exhale. Practice daily.
Every cyclist strives to become better at their sport, and by adding the dynamics of yoga to their training, will start seeing great results. Look to your local yoga studio for a gentle or Hatha class to find simple stretching and beginning breath work, or come visit Upper Echelon Fitness in Portland, Ore., and check out my Yoga and Cycling class. Keep stretching!
After living and working at Kripalu Yoga Center for two years, Julie received her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. Bringing her teachings to Portland in 2008, she became an avid cyclist and began riding for Sorella Forte, an all women’s cycling team. She since has developed a Yoga and Cycling class for Upper Echelon Fitness.