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Yoga for Cyclists – reaching new levels of strength and awareness

By Sarah W. Staber

Whether you’re a competitive athlete, a weekend warrior or a recreational cyclist you know you should be stretching but chances are you don’t. Or, if you do, then not enough.  On the pro-cycling scene, gone are the days of the ‘get out there and ride your bike’ mentality with a massage thrown in at the end of the day,  Recreational cyclists should take heed.

Today, options abound so there is no excuse not to stay a healthy, strong and injury-free cyclist.  Expert Darcy Norman was called in to Team HTC-Columbia as their “Core Coach” because Bob Stapleton realized the management needed to explore new ways to make their riders stronger and more stable. As part of his program, Norman uses a combination of core workouts and yoga exercises to give the Manx men an advantage on the bike. 

“The biggest complaint I hear is about back problems - and this holds true for recreational cyclists as well.  They get on their bikes and their bodies aren’t prepared to be in that position with legs moving and upper body not moving.  Stress goes to the middle - which is the lower back.  Usually when people have those problems they are over compensating, they are robbing Peter to pay Paul.  They are not using something right and as a result the stress gets up in their lower back and that’s where the pain manifests.”

Norman maintains that mobility and stability work will give the body the condition it needs to get in the position and ride for hours without pain.

But what can a cyclist, who has no access to the experts who help the pros, do?  A local yoga class is a great start.

Hildegard Biller, an Austrian yoga teacher who studied in America, owned a yoga studio in Vienna and now, with her husband Werner, owns and runs the Soami Yoga Retreat Center located in the southern Austrian alps is an expert in this area.

The Soami Yoga Retreat Center - Yoga for Cyclists – reaching new levels of strength and awareness - SportActive

“I did a lot of one-to-one work with athletes in my studio in Vienna.  With cyclists a reoccurring problem is tightness. The bent over stance that cyclists hold hour after hour on a bike creates major problems for the body and most hobby cyclists don’t do much to counter it once off the bike. It is like constantly being in a backward bend and that needs to be countered.” Biller explained.  “Another thing is the tightness in the hip area.  This needs to be opened and there are some great yoga poses which do exactly this,” she revealed.

An active, dynamic (Yang) yoga class is what Biller suggests for cyclists who want to focus on stamina and overall strength. “Try some different classes, you will feel the positive effects on your tendons and ligaments.  These can be best reached through yoga.  Strengthening these will give you an advantage on the bike.”

For recovery, Yin Yoga is ideal, says Biller.  “Cycling is a very masculine sport.  Yin Yoga - with it’s long, deep stretches - counters perfectly what you are subjecting your body to on the bike.  The poses in Yin Yoga work directly on your connective tissue, and when this is flexible and stretched chances of injury are reduced greatly.  It is very focused and gives your body what it needs to balance the yang of cycling.”

Slow intense movements including proper breathing will allow you to get deeper into the body, “Otherwise you are just working your upper muscles, but its this other level below that yoga reaches and it gives you a new source of strength, power and flexibility,” she clarified.  

Biller goes on to explain that yoga is more than stretching as it brings awareness to the middle (Hara).  “It’s not about having a six pack.  It is being aware of the different zones in your bodies – this will give you a different feeling on the bike.” 

Yoga for Cyclists – reaching new levels of strength and awareness - SportActiveBREATHE DEEP AND REAP THE BENEFITS
Breathing is key to this experience and when you get the hang of breathing with the pose an entire new dimension will be exposed. “Yoga has another aspect that is missing in most exercise:  Your spirituality.  Proper yoga breathing lets you open within and then you can get into contact with whom you are.  Once there, you can find your strength within. Doing yoga at this level can give you even more than racking up the kilometers with on-bike training,” she insists.

When you think about it, it is logical that proper breathing will help in body control and aid in carrying oxygen to the muscles.  Biller also explains that it can relax you. “If you’re in control of your breathing you are in control of your life force, your Prana.  Say you are going uphill.  If you can do a long exhale, you can relax a bit and gain energy while the other guy who is taking short quick breathes is going to get more tired, quickly.”  Another plus is that pulse rates sink with yoga training.  “The heart and lungs get a lot of positive strengthening and you will see proof of that on your heart rate monitor,” Biller guarantees.

But breathing can do more.  “The other thing is that if you can work the breath you can work anything.  You might be out of muscular strength but if you can focus on your breath like you do in meditation than you can go that 50 km more because you can breathe out the pain or the exhaustion.”  It must be noted, however, that to get to this level regular training is needed.


Yoga for Cyclists – reaching new levels of strength and awareness - SportActiveSOME SUGGESTIONS
Although Biller suggests 3 – 5 hours of yoga a week for serious cyclists, she says a few yoga moves before and after a ride can greatly enhance your cycling experience and help prevent injury.  Doing the Sun Salutation 3 -10 times before you hop on your bike will give you both the forward and backward bend and works the entire body as well. Just don’t forget the breathing and you will feel ready to tackle any route on the day’s plan.

After a ride, Biller recommends spinal twists, but not right away. First some stretching of the hamstrings, forward bends, half-inversion poses (lying on the floor and resting your legs on a wall), hanging forward, and then get into the twists.  These are essential as they unwind the upper body that has been rigid during cycling for hours on end.

All these stretches and poses should be learned in a yoga class or better yet with a private yoga instructor who can focus on your special needs as a cyclist. “I don’t recommend using a book,” Biller says adamantly. “You can do something wrong. Yoga only works when you are in the moment and connected with your body and the breath.  You can’t be there if you are looking at a book and turning pages! Only then will you get the most out of your yoga for your body, mind and soul,” she concluded.

So, no more hopping on and off the bike without doing anything for your body as a whole both before and after the ride!  Supplemental exercise will make you stronger, faster and, if done correctly, less likely to be injured.

“The culture of the sport tends to be the most limiting factor to performance,” summarized Norman.  “Look at the history of cycling, it’s that ‘hardman’ factor - just getting on the bike and riding that has prevailed until recently. Now it’s becoming more scientific.  We see what we can take from other sports and apply it to cycling to get benefits – whether it is technology, training methods or recovery methods, we are looking for things that help.”

And yoga does. 

Note: The Soami Yoga Retreat Center in Obermillstatt, Austria offers its guests various yoga styles, combined with organic nutrition and body treatments for a rounded, fulfilling experience. (www.yoga-retreat.at). Hildegard Biller is also a nutritionist and will be talking with us soon about proper nutrition for cyclists.  Keep an eye out here in the News section of our www.sportactive.net website for the article.

April 2010

Yoga for Cyclists – reaching new levels of strength and awareness - SportActive

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