Cycling and is a fun, rewarding, healthy, and economical, form of exercise.
It provides excellent cardiovascular benefits and works major muscle groups. However, it puts your body in a very specific posture for long periods of time. After a while, a body can start to complain about that, and in Alaska where our traditional cycling season is short, we are really good at overdoing it in the few brief months when we can do it at all.
That is where yoga comes in. What cycling tightens, yoga can lengthen. What we compress on the bike for hours at a time can be opened through repeating a few key postures after each ride.
Cycling Muscle Groups and Posture
Cycling offers a variety of benefits. First, it is a great, low-impact way to work your lungs. Low-impact exercises offer the workout benefits without the jarring and straining on your knees and other joints. This is especially important to those with prior injuries, those who are carrying some extra weight, or folks with arthritis or other joint issues. Many strong individuals who cannot run any more turn to cycling.
Cycling works many different muscles. In riding your bike, you work your thigh muscles, front and back, your calf muscles, and rear-end muscles, even your foot muscles. Some experience the strengthening of their arms and shoulders because of the positioning and arm use. Additionally, in maintaining good balance and posture on the bike, you fire up all of your core muscles. Some notice a strengthening in shoulder and neck muscles, as well, as the body adjusts to a forward-leaning posture.
Any use of muscles should be followed by gentle stretching of the muscles. Stretching improves mobility and range of motion. As your flexibility and mobility improve, you’ll enjoy improvements in balance and coordination. Stretching will help you keep good posture, and resist your body torquing in unnatural ways as you continue to work and tighten muscles.
Yoga Benefits and Useful Poses
How many of you have ever heard someone say that they don’t or can’t do yoga because they are not flexible? That is like saying you shouldn’t go to the grocery store because you don’t have food. Yoga poses are for everyone, are modifiable for any body type, and a great way to find some flexibility and mobility.
So, is yoga stretching? Well, sort of. Yoga involves stretching, and here we’ll go over three poses that are most complementary to bike riding. Yoga can be much more than just stretching though. Yoga is actually a multi-part life practice that originates in the India-Pakistan region of the world. Its origins come from Hinduism and involve principles of kindness, thoughtfulness, nonviolence, as well as the physical practice of specific postures and breathing techniques. But you don’t have to travel to India or learn about Hinduism to get great benefits from incorporating a few yoga poses into your daily routine.
You don’t have to go to a class or organize 90 minutes of poses to really practice yoga. A great home yoga practice can be made up of a few poses that feel good that day or that you feel you need. There are also some great YouTube videos of yoga practice designed for you to follow along. If all you have is a few minutes, you can still work in some breath work and a few poses and get considerable benefits.
These poses that work very well to stretch the muscles you use in bike riding or strengthen countering muscles to provide balance. As with any new exercise or increase in activity, check with your doctor to make sure you’re ready. And, as always, listen to your body. Sometimes in yoga (and cycling), you will find your body’s limit, and you can safely explore the edge of that limit. But, don’t push too far. Avoid any sharp pains or jerky movements in poses and be warmed up when you go into any pose.
As a cyclist, you spend a lot of time flexed forward over the handlebars. This position shortens your abdominal muscles and lengthens and weakens the muscles that run along the back of your spine. Cobra pose lengthens the abdominal muscles and strengthens your back muscles and other muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades. This makes your cycling posture more solid and decreases your chances for low back pain.
To practice cobra pose, lie face down on your mat and bring your hands below your shoulders. Press the tops of your feet together and down into the mat. Keep your elbows bent and press into your hands to lift your chest away from the floor. The more you can use your back muscles to lift your chest, the better, so try to keep as little weight on the hands as possible. Keep your elbows drawn in toward your sides so your shoulders don’t round forward. Allow your shoulder blades to draw slightly away from your ears and keep your neck long while you broaden across your collarbones. Start with holding Cobra pose for five to seven calm breaths, as you feel your chest and belly soften and open.
Cow Face Pose
Cow Face Pose is a great posture because it targets shoulders and your rear-end muscles, areas all cyclists work on any ride. You may find in this posture that you also get a little stretch to the IT band (on the outside of the thigh) as well.
To get into cow face pose, begin on your hands and knees and then pull your right leg forward to cross your right knee directly in front of your left knee (as though you were seated on a crowded train and were crossing your legs in order to make room for the person next to you). Now move your left foot right until your heels are positioned wider than hip-distance apart. Next, walk your hands back and lower your hips down toward the floor. Your left hip will touch down first, followed by your right. Move slowly, and if you have trouble getting both hips down, try elevating your hips on a folded blanket or towel.
If you can, try to rest your right knee on top of your left one, but don’t force it. Sit up tall and lift your rib cage away from your pelvis, lengthening your spine. To ensure that your lower back doesn’t round, roll your pelvis forward and your sit bones (those bones in the bottom of your booty that you feel when you’re sitting down) back behind you. In doing so, make sure to be mindful of your core muscles; keep your belly muscles engaged in and up. Lift your chest, and lengthen through the top of your head. (If this is confusing, check out the YouTube video listed below for a demonstration.)
To add the upper body component, reach your right arm straight up and your left arm straight down. Bend both elbows so your right palm and the back of your left hand rest against your back. If your fingertips touch, that’s fine. If they don’t, hold on to either end of a small towel with each hand or simply rest your hands on your back. Continue actively reaching your fingers toward each other, and stay mindful of your posture. As you repeat this pose over the course of days and weeks, it will be very satisfying to quickly see improvements in your hip and shoulder mobility.
Pigeon pose is great for easing tight hip muscles – a must for every cyclist! Start on your hands and knees and bring your right knee forward, placing it more or less behind your right wrist. Place your ankle somewhere in front of your left hip. The more your lower leg is parallel to the front of the mat, the more intense the hip opener will be. Slide your left leg back, straighten the knee and point the toes. Make sure your leg is behind your body and not drawing outwards and that your heel is pointing up to the ceiling. Draw your legs in towards each other to help keep your hips square. Gently lower yourself down and use a folded towel or blanket under your right buttock if needed, to keep your hips level.
As you inhale, lift your upper body, come up on your fingertips with your hands at shoulder width. Draw your navel in, relax your tailbone down and open your chest. As you exhale, walk your hands forward and lower your upper body toward the floor. You can rest your forehead on your forearms if that is comfortable. Be sure to keep your neck relaxed and try to be comfortable. Stay here for 5 breaths or longer and on each exhale try to release any tension in your right hip. Balance your weight on both legs. Come out of the pose by pushing back through the hands and lifting the hips, move the leg back into all fours. Don’t forget to do the other side and don’t be surprised if the second side feels very different. Try to fit this pose in after any ride and you’ll see huge gains in your hip strength and balance.
What Else Can Yoga Bring Me?
On top of the physical benefits of yoga, including mobility, flexibility, and balance, a yoga practice also brings improved breath control, lung strength and lung capacity. Many individuals also find themselves calmer, less anxious, or less stressed with a regular yoga practice. Multiple studies support that a variety of types of yoga practice reduce the impact of the stress response (which also improves your pain tolerance!), as well as help with anxiety and depression.
There are nearly infinite resources online to help you come up with additional great poses to try and excellent videos on practicing poses safely. Remember, it only takes a few minutes of breathing and postures at the end of a ride to significantly improve how you’ll feel on your next ride, and in between.
Cow face pose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-acLT1lsMYo
A cycling-specific 23-min yoga practice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWzRE1BiAvw
Emma Haddix is an attorney who was born and raised in Anchorage. When she’s not chasing her toddler she is working, trying to fit workouts in, and hunting for the best gluten free cupcake. To reach Emma, email: firstname.lastname@example.org