Words by Kristen Phillips
Also shared on Pretty. Damned. Fast.
It’s the time of the year when we design our training plans for next season and assess our strengths and weaknesses. Most of us who ride a lot will probably cite stretching and routine body maintenance as areas we can improve, and as a coach who has worked with a lot of cyclists, I'm here to make a case for taking that part of your training (more) seriously.
Cycling is a repetitive motion sport, and maintaining our bodies is as important as maintaining our bikes. No one’s body is perfectly symmetrical left and right, but our bikes ask us to be. As we rotate our pedals up to 100 times per minute, we tend to develop tightness and imbalances in predictable places. Yoga offers us powerful tools to help rehab our bodies and restore functional range of motion. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating the practice of yoga into your training this winter with an emphasis on injury prevention and rehabilitation.
Become aware of left/right balance
Yoga postures ask us to put our bodies in positions we normally wouldn’t dream of, with the goal of restoring symmetry. Some poses will be easier on one side than the other. Take note of this, and hold the difficult side longer. Notice what parts of your body feel the tightest. In cyclists, the hamstrings, lower back, and hip flexors are usually the first to call attention to themselves. As these area stretch and release, other more nuanced areas may be revealed. If you focus your awareness on a consistent basis, it’s possible to catch the beginnings of injuries before they become a problem. The same goes for healing old injuries that are on one side of your body and not the other.
Embrace the poses you don’t like
Every cyclist has things they are naturally good at, like climbing, sprinting or technical riding. To become a well-rounded rider, we can’t exclude anything. The same goes for yoga. There will be poses that come easily and others that seem unreasonably hard. It will be different for everyone. Take note of the ways your body doesn’t want to move, and work to slowly increase the range of motion there. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others; just like on the bike everyone has something to work on. Never force yourself into a pose, but do make effort. Use props to help make the pose comfortable. If you work with the pose instead of against it, you will make progress that will help your cycling—guaranteed.
Learn to relax
If rehab or mental training is your goal, the most important thing you can learn in a yoga class is how to work hard while relaxing in a pose, especially when they are difficult for you. Notice how you approach these poses. Some people force their way in; others don’t try. Yoga teaches us to gently and patiently breathe our way through discomfort. It’s the same on the bike. Forcing up hard climbs or down fast descents is self-limiting. A yoga class is a great place to learn to stay calm and focused while doing things that are physically challenging.
Learn to breathe
Sounds obvious, right? Once you learn to breathe well, you will wonder how you ever got along without it. My teacher says, “If you can breathe, you are in control.” That’s about as simple as the instruction gets. Yoga has many breathing techniques to offer. Take note of instructions you receive in class, as they will help you control your mind and emotions and increase your ability to breathe well on the bike. Breathing into tight areas in your body while in a pose is a learned skill and a big step to rehabbing your body and mind. Once acquired, it can be applied to your cycling and any other area of your life.
Find a class and go consistently
Everyone knows that if they want to get better at cycling, they have to ride with some consistency. Fitness and strength are cumulative, and entropy happens fast: The body is extremely resourceful in that way. If we don’t ride, we feel the effects quickly. I encourage cyclists to look at yoga in the same way. Once we understand how good our bodies can actually feel, it’s amazing to think we used to live with so many aches and pains. Take advantage of classes and training, and make rehabbing any injuries and ailments a priority this winter.
Recently, Lisa Mazzola and I founded Art of Cycling NYC as a way to help cyclists improve every aspect of their riding, and that includes strength and flexibility regimens like yoga. Once yoga becomes a regular part of training, the mental side begins to reveal itself. It starts with the body and quickly introduces techniques for managing our mind, thoughts, and emotions. We learn to be calm under pressure and generally more aware of our ourselves while becoming more physically adept.
There is every reason to start practicing yoga this season, and one of the things Art of Cycling is here to do is make yoga a convenient, accessible, and structured part of your training program. Find out more about our Yoga for Cyclists classes here and email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.