With the pandemic calling for more outdoor activities, and now, with summer around the corner, it sure is tempting to get on your bike for a spin. It comes as no surprise that a survey done by the American Community Survey shows a 62% increase in bicycles as a means to commute. Cycling is one of the best cardiovascular activities that also builds muscular endurance and strength.
As a cyclist you might be thinking you’re getting enough exercise and movement in. But while your leg and core strength might be good, your flexibility and mobility of the hips takes a hit, along with intense tightness and soreness in the back, legs and shoulders. Many cyclists struggle with increased tension and stiffness in the shoulders, back and hips. Off the bike it is easy to feel guilty of not doing anything more for your body. But given the amount of time you spend in the one position on the bike, doing the repeated movements with your legs and your arms in the same tight position, giving your body a stretch to loosen the muscles is necessary. Thus, yoga and cycling go hand in hand.
What happens to the muscles after cycling
A cyclist makes repeated linear movements which can create an imbalance of the musculature. This leads to excessive tension in the joints and muscles. A typical stroke will involve the entire leg. The downward stroke of a pedal uses the glute and quadricep muscles, with the hamstrings and calf muscles getting active halfway through or just before you get to the bottom of the stroke. As you begin to pull the pedal back up, your shin muscles get engaged in order to flex the ankle. The hamstrings, hip flexors and calf muscles get to work to bend the knee and to bring the foot back up. Let’s not forget the shoulders and arms. Your triceps, shoulder and chest muscles are continuously engaged while gripping the handle bars to support the upper body. All this movement, in a continuous loop, creates tension which causes weakness, discomfort and pain in the muscles over a period of time.
The cycling posture itself causes the spine to flex forward and neck to slightly extend in order to keep the gaze on the road. It’s not typically a bad posture, but too much time spent in the position will cause extreme stiffness and tension. It’s important to maintain that balance with counter movements.
How can yoga help cyclists
Let’s understand why yoga is one of the best forms of complementary activity for cyclists. Yoga helps in three specific ways - improve flexibility and mobility, strength building and mindful breathing.
Flexibility and mobility
If you’re spending a long time on the bike or your commute is a long one, it’s extremely important to stretch out sore or tight muscles. Sitting hunched on a cycle calls for shoulder, neck, chest, back, hip and leg stretches. Yoga has a stretch for each and every muscle in your body. From gentle movements to deep asanas, each stretch will work on giving your muscles the much needed care and attention.
For cyclists, taking care of the spine is important. Yoga asanas include a lot of twists which provide a massage for the internal organs and spinal nerves. They relax the pain, release pain and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When you work on this with a teacher, you will also learn to coordinate each movement with your breath.
Strength and endurance are important when you’re on a bike. From strong and stable muscles and joints to a strong respiratory system, building strength will ensure you get better on the bike too. Core strength is very important. The abdominal wall in the front, the side muscles and muscles of the lower back form the core. Therefore, it is the abdominal wall that supports the muscles of the lower back. The back in turn supports the core. So working on core strength will ensure you are able to avoid lower back pain due to the cycling posture. Core exercises will, thus, strengthen the spine, improve posture and make you stronger on the bike.
Breathwork and mindfulness
Your breath will keep you calm, relaxed and focused while riding. Mindful breathing will keep you in the present, making you aware of your posture and body. A steady breath will help you exert more when needed, and relax when needed, thus conserving energy on long rides. All yoga practices such as asanas, pranayama, meditation etc. Involve the breath and make you mindful over a period of time. Pranayama practices that cool the body, like Sheetali, Sheetkari and Chandra Bedi Pranayama, are useful to practice soon after cycling too. Even alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, is a good practice to balance your body and mind after a ride. Adding a short meditation everyday (10-20 minutes) will help you bring stability, focus and calmness to the mind and body, improving your biking experience as well.
Yoga poses for cyclists
Here are a few cycling yoga poses that are especially helpful for cyclists.
Cobra pose or Bhujangasana
Your position on the cycle - leaning forward over the handlebars - shortens your abdominal muscles. It also lengthens and weakens the muscles that run along the back of your spine (erector spinae). A cobra pose will lengthen the abdominal muscles, strengthen the erector spinae and muscles that balance your shoulder blades. Even the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles will get a strengthening effect. This reduces the chances of lower back pain.
How to practice cobra pose
- To practice cobra pose, lie facedown on your mat and bring your hands below your shoulders.
- Press the tops of your feet down into the mat and keep your elbows bent. Now press into your hands to lift your chest away from the floor.
- Use your back muscles to lift your chest as this will be better.
- Keep your elbows pulled towards your sides and avoid the shoulders from rounding. Shoulders should remain away from the ears.
- Stay here for a few breaths. Relax and breathe as deeply as possible.
Low Lunge Twist
Hip flexors and quadriceps are difficult areas for cyclists due to the seated posture and repetitive cycling movement. The hip flexors become tight as the knee pulls up, and the quads become tight due to the knee extension as the foot presses down. It is important to give a lot of attention to this area. This will ensure your pedal stroke stays efficient and doesn’t falter due to lack of mobility. This pose is a twist which will open your hip flexors and quads as well as your chest, shoulders, and spine.
How to practice low lunge twist
- To practice this variation, start with a low lunge. Your right foot should be between your hands. Make sure your right knee is directly above your right ankle.
- Now gently drop your left knee to the floor. You can also keep a blanket or a small cushion below your knee for comfort.
- Bring both hands inside your right leg. Keep your left hand on the floor. As you inhale, stretch your right arm forward in front of you. And as you exhale, take your right arm up and back, behind you.
- Keep facing your right leg. Don’t let your shoulders round. They should remain open.
- Now slowly bend your left knee and try to catch the outside of your left foot with your right hand. Be gentle and do not force it.
- Once you’ve got a grip, exhale and gently sink into your hips. Check to make sure your shoulders and chest are open as you twist your torso to the right.
- Stay here for a few deep breaths or as long as you are comfortable.
Cow Face Pose or Gomukhasana
This asana is great for the shoulders and glutes. The shoulders can get very tight from supporting some of the upper body weight on the handlebars, and the glutes get tight from being in a seated posture for a long time with the muscles working in the same, repetitive motion. Cow face also helps adduct the legs which ensures removal of any stress build up, after long hours of just flexion and extension of the muscles.
How to practice cow face pose
- Sit on your yoga mat with your back straight and legs extended in front of you. Put your feet together and place your palms next to your hips.
- Bend your right leg and place the right feet under your left buttock. Stack your left knee over your right knee.
- Raise the left arm above your head and bend the elbow. Simultaneously, bring the right arm behind your back and interlock both hands. If your hands don’t reach each other, simply bring them as close as possible. You can also use a strap or a scarf and hold onto that with both hands.
- Take deep breaths and stay as long as you are comfortable.
- Now, as you exhale, release your arms. Uncross your legs and repeat for the other leg.
Bound angle pose or Baddha Konasana
Tight inner thighs is another common problem for cyclists. Over time this can cause an imbalance in the knee joint and lower back and cause pain as well. This tightness can also cause the outer gluteal muscles to engage incorrectly when they’re needed. Balance in these muscles is important in order to keep your hips stable in the saddle. Baddha Konasana is extremely useful in bringing back the balance and loosening up the hips and thighs.
How to practice Baddha Konasana
- Sit with the spine straight and legs wide apart.
- Now bend the legs and bring the feet as close to the groin as you can. Join the soles of the feet together.
- Grab the feet or the toes tightly with the hands. You can place the hands on the mat, below the feet, if you need more support. Ensure your back remains straight.
- Now slowly try to bring the feet closer to the groin if you can.
- If you are comfortable, you can also try to slowly push the thighs and knees towards the mat. Remember to be gentle and do as much as possible.
- Engage the core so you are able to hold the posture. Keep your attention on the stretch in the groin, inner thighs and back.
- Stay here for a few slow, deep breaths. This will help you relax in the posture.
Downward facing dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana
Improve breathing patterns, airflow and respiratory health with asanas like the downward facing dog. Often considered an active resting pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana is a wonderful asana for stretching and strengthening the muscles. The asana also releases tight areas like the calves, hamstrings and shoulders, allowing you to stretch out your back as well. As an inversion, it improves blood circulation, invigorates the mind and releases stress.
How to practice Downward Facing Dog
- Come onto your fours. Form a table such that your back forms the table top and your hands and feet form the legs of the table.
- As you breath out, lift the hips up, straightening the knees and elbows. Your body will form an inverted V-shape.
- Hands are shoulder width apart, feet are hip width apart and parallel to each other. Keep the toes pointed straight ahead.
- Press your hands into the ground. Widen through the shoulder blades. Keep the neck lengthened by touching the ears to the inner arms.
- Hold the downward dog pose and take long deep breaths. Look towards the navel.
- Exhale. Bend the knees, return to table pose. Relax.
Asanas for core strength
Plank and side plank
These asanas work on core strength. As discussed above, core strength is extremely useful in keeping the back strong and flexible while also building endurance on the bike. Plank and side plank poses help to tone the core muscles. Firstly the abdomen and back get strengthened. The chest, arms, wrists, and shoulders also get a nice strengthening effect you will love!
This is also a great asana for core strength. The Boat pose atargets the abdomen but it also strengthens the vertebral column and hip flexors. Try to stay in the posture for a good few long breaths. Engage your core so you are able to hold the posture better.
The warrior series (Virabhadrasana 1, 2, Trikonasana, Parvokonasana, etc.) works on the core, leg, back, shoulders and arms. It stretches out all these areas as well as provides a strengthening effect.
There are many practices you can take up to complement cycling. It doesn’t have to be everyday. Just 3-4 hours a week will also help you greatly. Irrespective of your level or flexibility, a teacher can guide you in the best way. Take it slow, practice with the right alignment, and push yourself just the appropriate amount to experience all the wonderful benefits of yoga. As you progress you will learn more about your body and how beneficial the practices are.