The practice of yoga is about balance, connection of the mind and body, and a sense of being present in the moment. This is achieved through various poses (asanas) and breathing exercises that will benefit indoor and outdoor cycling enthusiasts in their performance, mental focus, and in training plans. Sun Salutations, one of the bases of all Vinyasa Flow classes, build heat in the body. The flowing combination of strength, balance, stretch, and core activation make them a great dynamic warm-up before a ride.
The goal of asanas in yoga is to produce a warm pliable body that is less prone to injury. Using poses that produce total body strength is beneficial to cyclists, as they tend to have over developed quads and backs, but weaker abdominals, inner thighs and hamstrings (Williamson, 2013). Through the practice of yoga, cyclists can decrease muscular imbalances, which improves riding abilities and reduces injury.
Here are five (5) specific ways in which the practice of yoga can benefit cyclists.
1. Improved Core Strength
The core, as defined by physical therapist and medical professionals alike, includes 35 different muscles that connect the pelvis from the spine to the hips. Musculature includes (1) back extensors; (2) abdominals; (3) lateral trunk muscles; (4) hip muscles (Donatelli, n.d.). With this amount of musculature, it’s a super important area of strength and stability – especially for cyclists.
A strong core enables cyclists to maintain proper spinal alignment and posture – even when fatigue starts to set in on a long ride.
Yoga is a great way to improve postural alignment and functional core strength. Many of the fundamental asana poses are rooted in developing inner-abdominal pressure while maintaining neutral spinal alignment. This is beneficial to cyclists as it decreases the pressure on the shoulders and wrists that comes with riding postures.
A strong core is also beneficial as it decreases the risk of lower back injuries. Lower back pain is a common challenge amongst cyclists, especially those who spend long hours in the saddle, and this is often the result of poor core engagement and postural support.
Check out these great yoga poses for core strength, as outlined by Yoga Journal.
*It’s important to note that we are not suggesting the cyclists need to “suck in their abs” or “squeeze their butt” to engage their core – but instead that gaining strength in this area will improve their posture and decrease their risk of injury.
2. Improved Neutral Spine While Ridding
The back was not designed to be held in flexion for long periods of time, yet this is exactly what cycling requires from it. The position causes the supporting ligaments to become overstretched and weakened, and excess pressure to build on the intervertebral discs. This can lead to pain in the upper and lower back, shoulders, and neck.
Yoga poses that help realign the neutral spine position, like Mountain, are beneficial to riders by providing a sense of spinal alignment both on and off the bike. Those poses that focus on the wide range of movements in the spine allow the back to become suppler and improves pelvic tilt position used to engage the core during correct cycling positions. Increased flexibility in the hips, glutes, and hamstrings also improves riding posture.
A common challenge of cyclists is to not fall victim to an excessive amount of upper body kyphosis due to excessive hours on the bike, sitting at computers, and using cell phones. This posture over time when riding causes cyclists to strain their neck to look at the road, resulting in pain in the lower back, upper back, shoulders, and neck.
Here Yoga Journal outlines great yoga poses for back pain.
3. Increased focus and lower levels of tension
Physical, emotional and mental tension from the demands of life and poor riding postures drains energy. For cyclists this has an impact on pedal efficiency and form. A lack of mental focus or too high of stress levels can decrease a riders ability to push optimal power levels. This makes a ride that may have previously been easy, seem incredibly challenging.
Yoga sessions can do wonders to increase mental acuity, decrease stress, and reduce the negative impact of muscular tension on the body. Whether it’s through a purposeful focus on breathing, the use of a mantra, or simply the calming nature of the practice, yoga sessions will improve cyclists focus on the bike.
4. Reduced Risk of Injury
When yoga flows are used as a means of “prehab” training, common injuries in the back and legs are less likely to occur. Because yoga approaches movement from a place of balance the common imbalances experienced in riding can be addressed and improved.
In cycling the leg never reaches full extension, thus giving the hamstrings little opportunity to fully lengthen. Over time this reduces the elasticity of the hamstrings and puts it at greater risk of strains and tears. Poses such as Standing Forward Fold aim to increase flexibility of the hamstrings for riders.
As discussed above, improving core strength decreases the pressure placed on wrists while riding and improves neck and shoulder pain.
5. More Efficient Breathing
The yoga breath is slow, controlled, and asks the breather to focus inward. This type of breathing is opposite of the rapid breath taken by many athletes during higher intensity bouts of exercise. The ability to slow the breath down and focus inward at will allows participants to feel release from tension and control over their actions.
The ability to breathe better makes cyclists more efficient in their performance and allows quicker and more controlled recover after hills and other high intensity riding elements.
Individuals unfamiliar with focusing on their breath may find this portion of a yoga practice challenging, and forgo its importance. However, professional athletes are known to have major connections to movement and breath. Cyclists, for example, are known to inhale and exhale with the cadence of their legs, ultimately controlling their breath versus letting the work control their breathing. This is especially important during challenging hill climbs, sprints, or accelerations.
Kristen Gentilucci of Team USA Cycling shares a great testament of why yoga breathing can improve cycling performance:
“With cycling you get into a stride, a rhythm, a continuous movement of pedaling and breathing. The same is said for faster styles of yoga where each pose transforms continuously into the next and the breath carries one forward. It calms and heals while increasing the heart rate and strengthening the core. I also find i consciously process the same issues on my yoga mat as I do in a race, and so – with a steady yoga practice – arrive much more mentally and physically ready at the start line.”
If participants can become aware of their breathing through their yoga practice, then they may find their rides become more efficient and comfortable.
Are you a cyclists who does yoga? If not, why not?! Share your story with us in the comments.
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BS: Exercise & Sports Science
NSCA: Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
ACSM: Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
Yoga Alliance: 200-hr RYT
ACE: Group Fitness Instructor
Balanced Body: Reformer Level 1 Coach
Schwinn: Indoor Cycle Instructor
RRCA: Running Coach