Why should cyclists do yoga?

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Emma Nicholson tells us why cyclists should take up the ancient practice of yoga, with some expert input and a few stretches from yoga teacher extraordinaire, Sam Edwards

Note: If you buy a Casquette LIVE ticket to the London Bike Show, you’ll get a free ‘Yoga for Cyclists’ class with Sam

In a bygone era, cyclists did nothing but cycle. The more you rode, the faster you’d go – or so went the received wisdom. However, there has been a significant shift in mindset in recent years, with cyclists at all levels devoting time to warming up, cooling down, active recovery, stretching and yoga, all in a quest for greater on-bike efficiency. But can a few downward dog poses really make you better at hill climbing? We find out…

So, what is this yoga business?
In its simplest form, yoga involves adopting a set of various positions or ‘poses’, intended to stretch and activate different parts of your body. Yoga traditionally also contains elements of breath control and meditation – although these do sometimes fall by the wayside in more contemporary yoga classes in favour of having a good old stretchy workout.  

Beyond those essential elements it all gets a bit kaleidoscopic, with myriad styles and sub-genres; there’s bikram (hot and sweaty), vinyasa flow (smooth and, well, flowy) and acro- (yoga with added gymnastics) – to name but a handful.

Why is yoga good for cyclists?
Besides the recognised benefits of getting yourself into the calm headspace that yoga encourages, the practice can actually improve your cycling form, efficiency and power from the comfort of your home. Sam Edwards of Core Coaching lists the following ways a weekly yoga session can make you a better cyclist:

·       Builds cyclist-specific strength and stability

·       Increases flexibility in cycle-specific muscle groups

·       Develops a strong core and back for stable upper body

·       Reduces pain and discomfort from long stints in the saddle

·       Breath work helps to speed up recovery time

·       Helps prevent and avoid injuries

What about those general cycling niggles?
When you ride a bike, you force your body into a somewhat unusual position, pushing power through the pedals while bent forward over the handlebars. This commonly results in tight hip flexors, not to mention neck, shoulder and back strain. Yoga is particularly good for dealing with these cycling-specific issues because many yoga poses are designed to target the hip flexors and lower back, developing muscle strength and stability. There’s also the aerobic focus that yoga promotes; its steady and controlled technique translates brilliantly to cycling, especially during hard efforts when aerobic efficiency is so important.

Which pro cyclists swear by it?
In a sport which is always on the hunt for marginal performance gains, yoga and stretching have become standard in the training regimes of countless riders and teams.

Jonny Bellis, performance manager at Drops Cycling Team, explains the many reasons why yoga is encouraged in training and racing:

“The benefits of enhanced flexibility on the bike provided by regular yoga practice are numerous. I believe flexibility improves performance, reduces risk of injury, improves transport of blood and nutrients to muscles, and reduces muscle soreness. Our athletes are encouraged to stretch after training and competition.”

 But it’s not just the physical performance gain that yoga is used for. Alexis Ryan of Canyon//SRAM implements yoga into her own day-to-day activity outside the remit of her formal training:

“Yoga is a great way to turn the mundane task of daily stretching into a dynamic and therapeutic activity. The principles of yoga are a reminder of the importance of breathing, listening to your body, and respecting head space—the core of training and recovery.”

How often should you do it?
There’s not really a set rule to the regularity with which you should practice yoga. Sam says that even if you only do yoga for an hour once a week, you will feel the benefits, but most professional cyclists will spend time on the stretching mat every day.

Once you start practicing yoga alongside your riding, you’ll likely feel inclined to incorporate it more and more regularly into your routine, especially when you notice tightness after a long ride.

Wouldn’t it be better just to spend more time on the bike?
There is a fairly vocal school of thought which intones that the best way, particularly for amateur and recreational cyclists, to improve their performance on the pedals is just to ride their bike more. That’s instead of doing weights sessions, dedicated core workouts, complementary sports like swimming, and also yoga.

However, we’re learning that certain off-the-bike practices can have unexpected benefits, some of which far exceed physical strength and efficiency. Not to mention the fact that unrolling a yoga mat and flexing your body in loose-fitting indoor clothes does not require much preparation, mentally or otherwise. Just think, there’s no bike to clean or lycra wash to do, but you’ve worked on your cycling nonetheless.

Sam Edwards has the following to say to those who ride lots but lament a lack of time spent working on their core strength and stability:

“Of course, we love our sport for many many reasons, often because of the feeling of success and elation we get from training hard and racing hard. That is what keeps us jumping back on the bike – inside or out, working hard and coming back for more. But what are the downsides to this consistent training?   

“Training the same muscle groups in repetitive patterns, often with imbalances in the body, causes the muscles to tire and tighten. Over time these muscles lose their elasticity and in turn power. Our bodies become less able to use the muscle to its full potential, making us less efficient in our sport. We all know we should strengthen and stretch, but often find it hard to fit it into our training schedule.  That’s precisely where yoga can help!”

Why is a yoga teacher who specialises in cycling important?
There’s a lot of material online to get you started in yoga, but there is a pretty strong argument for seeking the expertise of a teacher who has some knowledge of cycling and its impact on the rider.

All sports have different effects on the body – the strains inflicted by cycling will be different from running, for instance. Cyclists typically experience tight hamstrings, calves and thighs, as well as discomfort in the lower back, shoulders and neck. Focusing on mobilising and strengthening these areas through specific exercises will improve the body’s resilience to injury and even undo harm done by years and years of the ‘just ride’ mentality.

What will a first yoga session typically look and feel like?
You might be surprised initially by how much time is spent simply breathing. But as we’ve learned, this is all part of the mindful process of getting into the right head space, not to mention the improved muscle oxygenation that it promotes. You’ll then move onto a simple and slow-moving sequence of positions, none of which should initiate any sharp movements or anything more than the controlled discomfort of a gently stretched muscle. Most sessions will end just the way they began, encouraging deep breathing as you let the last of the tension fall from your joints. Many will come away from their first yoga practice feeling like they’ve had a gentle workout, but also more light and lithe in body, and clearer in mind.

You can follow Sam Edwards on Twitter at @corecoaching__ and find out more about her yoga classes here

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