How Cyclists can Benefit from a Yoga Practice
By Kate Potvin
Sure you can ride fast, but can you lift your leg over your head? Contorting into some of the seemingly impossible poses of yoga might not sound relevant to riding a bike, but not so fast, says Sage Rountree, a yoga instructor who specializes in instructing athletes. In fact, it may have everything to do with your time in the saddle.
Sage is both a registered yoga instructor and a USA Cycling Level 3 coach, and is the author of the book The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga. Sage says that a regular yoga practice as part of your training can have many benefits for cyclists, including improved strength, flexibility, balance, and focus. On top of that, it may play a key role in injury prevention.
Sage got started teaching yoga to cyclists because she hated the first class she went to: “It was so hard!” she says. “Athletes already have a lot of stress on their bodies, so they need yoga to be a complement” to their training. Now she designs and teaches classes specifically aimed at cyclists and other athletes.
One of the major benefits of a regular yoga practice is improved strength and endurance. “It can help strengthen the places that get too weak when we spend too much time in the saddle,” says Sage. Areas like the back, core, and upper body can often be underdeveloped in cyclists.
“It was a wake-up call,” says Zane Schweer, 27, a mountain and road rider from Jacksonville, NC, about beginning yoga classes two years ago. “I always thought I was pretty powerful on the bike, but I realized how weak I really was.” He specifically noticed weaknesses in some of the stabilizing muscles like those in the ankles, hips and groin that are very important to cycling.
Chris Schumacher, 42, a BMX and mountain bike rider took up yoga three years ago because he “realized that to compete at a high level I was going to have to do more than just ride my bike.” He has since seen effects on his racing skills and speed, particularly on difficult, technical terrain during mountain bike rides, where he really has to use core strength and balance- two key aspects of yoga. “You have to use the core and hold the balance, but you are trying to pedal your bike over challenging obstacles at the same time.”
Nancy Lange, 58, of Michigan has been road racing since she was 48. She did a 24- hour road race this year and finished first in her age category with 296.4 miles. “I’m just kind of a regular person,” she says, “not a real racer.” She says yoga has helped her with her strength and endurance. “Last year I didn’t really ride from December to March, but when I started riding again my strength still seemed to be there.”
“With yoga comes greater flexibility,” says Zane, who has definitely benefitted from this in the saddle. “Yoga brings flexibility to the areas that get too tight so that we can have a more fluid pedal stroke,” explains Sage. Cyclists tend to have tight hips and hamstrings in particular, but can also suffer from tight backs. Zane says he is now able to take a more aggressive position on the time trial bike because of his increased flexibility. He no longer gets sore holding this position for a long time and saves a lot of time by not having to get off the bike to stretch in the middle of a race. “It’s essentially free speed,” he says.
Some of the non-physical aspects of yoga, such as mental focus and breathing, can be just as important to cyclists. “It might sound silly,” Zane says, “but you really notice the benefits of breathing on the bike. The breath becomes a metronome.” Katheryn Curi Mattis, a retired pro-road racer from the Bay Area, agrees. In racing situations, she says, “it’s hard to maintain calm under pressure, but I would come back to breathwork or relaxing my shoulders...fundamentals of the [yoga] practice that are really applicable” on the bike.
From doing yoga, “your body is used to being stressed but remaining calm,” elaborates Zane. “Holding these poses is just like sprinting to the line or climbing a big hill. It requires that focus, that endurance, and that understanding that you might feel like you’re going to lose it, but if you can hold it a little longer you can reap some benefits, whether it’s winning the race or being the first to that king of the hill point. There are a lot of similarities.”
Balance and Injury Prevention
Injuries often plague competitive cyclists, but “all injuries are a result of some sort of imbalance,” says Sage Rountree. For example, cyclists often can have weak backs, and sometimes weak cores as well. Cyclists also tend to have underdeveloped upper bodies, and even right and left leg imbalances can cause inefficiencies in the stroke. All of these imbalances can result in overuse injuries in the stronger parts of the body that are picking up the slack.
Zane says he used to suffer from nagging pains in his knees and hips. After trying physical therapy which didn’t work, he decided to give yoga a try. Since taking up yoga he has been pain free. “Cyclists get so focused on the bike instead of their whole bodies,” he says. Katheryn agrees: “I think it is easy for cyclists to forget about their upper bodies,” but “having a strong core is essential to cycling.”
Not only can yoga help prevent overuse injuries, but it can help when you fall off the bike as well. “It’s almost like I walk away from something maybe I shouldn’t have,” says Chris, the BMX and mountain bike rider about several of his crashes. Nancy says she does yoga because “it helps me fall.” She just took up cyclocross this year, and in one race she fell off her bike and “rolled like a bowling ball” down a hill. But she got right back up and kept racing. “At my age that’s pretty good,” she says. She attributes her ability to spring back up to the yoga she has practiced for years, and the flexibility and balance that come with it.
Integrating into Training
How do these athletes integrate their yoga practices with their training? Sage says that “the physical intensity of the yoga practice needs to be an inverse proportion to wherever they are in training.” In other words, in the offseason yoga can be used as a workout to build strength, whereas during the peak season it should be used as a recovery tool.
Chris does yoga on rest days when he’s training, but also sometimes uses it as an easy day, “but I still get a good workout from doing a good yoga session.”
Zane practices yoga more in the offseason. He does a minimum of two sessions a week to work on imbalances created during the season, improve his overall strength and increase flexibility. “Yoga is great for working out tightness and erasing muscle memory of bad habits” developed in the saddle. During the peak season he scales back to once a week and uses yoga as a maintenance and recovery tool to relax the body and the mind. “So many riders don’t get off the bike enough,” he says.
Katheryn always travels with her yoga mat, taking time out to relax during big races, and knows a number of pro women who regularly travel with their yoga mats as well.
Not a Competition
One of the big challenges in yoga for competitive cyclists is leaving the competition at the door. Katheryn says that this dynamic of yoga has helped her find balance in her life: “as a very competitive person, it’s a good counterpoint to cycling...yoga is a good practice to living your life how you want to live it and not comparing yourself to others. As a competitive athlete it’s nice to feel like not everything is a competition.”
Sage’s advice is to know your tendencies: maybe set up in the back of the room if having other eyes on you awakens your competitive tendencies; or if watching other people sets you off, maybe place your mat in the very front so you can’t see anyone else.
But most importantly, know your limits: pushing yourself too far in yoga can cause real injuries, so it’s a very real danger to bring that competitive spirit into the classroom. “There should be a sign at every yoga studio,” says Katheryn, “that says ‘check your ego at the door.’”
How to Get Started
But how do you find a yoga class that is right for you? Sage says to just keep trying classes until you find one that works, comparing yoga styles to running shoes: “Some brands are going to work for you and some brands are just never going to work for you. You just have to keep trying until you find one that seems like it’s going to be a good fit. It can be confusing to have so many choices, so keep trying if at first you don’t succeed.” Sage also recommends telling the teacher ahead of time about any tightness or injuries as well as where you are in your training. The teacher might give modifications based on a rider’s needs physically and training-wise.
Katheryn recommends going with a friend and finding a good intro to yoga class: “don’t hop into some crazy intense class” the first time, she says. “And remember to be patient with yourself...there is a learning curve. As competitive cyclists, we are used to being the best at what we do, but yoga is about yourself, and your ability, and your challenge.” She compares trying yoga for the first time to someone’s first time on a bike. They will have a lot to learn before they become a pro racer!
There can be other obstacles to overcome as well, especially for male riders: “I was ignorant about what yoga was,” Chris says. “I thought it was for girls.” He has since been converted and says, “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”
Zane agrees with the sentiment, saying “The stereotype that yoga is just for girls who want to stretch...needs to be wiped away. It’s one of the harder workouts that I do. You get out what you put in. You’re going to get stronger, you’re going to go faster, and you’re going to be more flexible.” He says men just have to get over being the only guy in class at times. Once you get past learning the poses and the soreness (and “you will be sore!”), “you leave every session refreshed,” he says. “It’s that mental clarity and physical effort.”
But most importantly, says Zane, is “going in with an open mind, not worrying about being judged, and having fun. It’s really a lot of fun!”
Kate Potvin is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in the Colorado Springs area.