"Yoga is soooo overrated!" said nobody, ever. That’s because anyone who has adopted a consistent yoga routine knows firsthand the many benefits that accompany all that stretch, conscious breathing, and moaning and groaning. Think about it - there’s a reason that yoga has overcome the test of time and continues to stand on its own two feet, despite the many exercise and mental health fads that have come and gone.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of cyclists out there who for some reason or another, have an aversion to yoga and are under the impression that cycling alone is all they need to stay fit and maintain body movement. Even though riding a bicycle is a highly effective way to get in some heart-healthy, fat-burning physical activity, bicycling alone will not give you the results you need or want, particularly if you’re hoping to increase flexibility.
In fact, you might find that adding yoga to your weekly riding routine might be like finding the ying to your yang.
Why do I need to do yoga?
To determine why you need yoga, it’s important to address the fact that far too many athletes, especially cyclists, don’t believe yoga is “for” them. Here are some common misconceptions:
- "I don’t need to do yoga because some light pre and post workout stretching is more than enough."
- "I’m already obtaining all the physical movement and activity that my body needs without yoga."
- "I can barely make time for riding; yoga isn’t worth my time"
- "Yoga isn’t something men do; it’s for women."
The reality is that many cyclists suffer from discomfort and pain that results from the naturally aggressive riding position that places them in a bent over position. While this riding stance might promote highly developed back and leg muscles, it leaves the abdominal muscles significantly weaker. Weaker abs can cause you to fatigue quicker, affecting your riding posture, and eventually causing you to compensate by placing additional weight and pressure on your shoulders and wrists. Bottom line: a weak core will likely cause future discomfort and pain. THIS IS WHY YOU NEED TO DO YOGA.
In addition to helping you maintain better riding posture, yoga provides the well-known benefit of increases your overall flexibility. As just mentioned, cyclists spend most of their time hunched over their handlebars, which leads to tight hip flexors and lower back pain, even with proper riding form. Cyclists need to do yoga to release the tension that develops as a result of riding, particularly poses that target the hip flexors and lower back, helping to balance muscle strength and prevent injury. Just a little yoga a day makes the ouchies go away.
One more reason why regular cyclists need to start doing yoga might not seem as obvious: yoga keeps you focused on a deep and steady breath, forcing you to work aerobically. This kind of conscious yoga breathing ends up paying off in the long run because it helps you maintain better control of your breathing while riding. If you consistently practice purposeful breathing, you can eventually override the natural inhale-exhale breathing that cyclists habitually match to their leg cadence. Purposeful breathing helps you regain efficiency and control of your breathing, which will prove to be especially beneficial during accelerations, sprints, and climbing.
Before you begin
Before you grab a yoga mat and start stretching, STOP! There are some questions you need to ask yourself first:
1. What is my current stretching routine?
If you are hoping to establish a stretching routine for the first time, then it’s important that you consider your limited experience. Increasing flexibility takes time and consistency. If you’ve had your fair share of yoga in the past or if you have a stretching practice in place, then all you have to do is some fine tuning to ensure that your body is receiving what it needs most. However, if this is your first time trying yoga, then opt for modified versions whenever possible.
2. Have I ever done yoga before?
If you're expecting to be limber enough to do a perfect split after only two months of daily practice, you’re going to be sorely mistaken; many yogi’s practice daily for years before being able to attain that level of flexibility. Opt for modified beginner level versions of poses, as they are gentler on your body. If you have limited flexibility, delving into an intermediate or advanced level pose could result in injury. If you’ve dabbled in yoga, then you have a good idea of what it is, how it feels, and how it works. Keeping your goals and expectations realistic is important; failure to do so may result in injury, which is exactly what you’re trying to prevent.
3. How often do I go riding?
The more often you ride, the more likely your body is to require yoga, and the more often.
4. What kind of riding do I do?
A leisurely ride your cruiser along the boardwalk? A grueling century road ride? Or an intense mountain biking shredfest? Your yoga needs will depend on your riding style and habits. Yoga will certainly benefit any body, but the frequency and duration of your yoga sessions will heavily rely on how tight your body becomes from the riding you do. Usually, the more aggressive or frequent the cyclist, the more the need for yoga exists.
5. Am I currently noticing discomfort that may be related to riding?
The most commonly complained about riding pains occur in the hips and lower back. Pay attention to your body and how it feels. If you think you might be experiencing pain that extends beyond the normal tightness that results from cycling, consult with your physician prior to adopting any kind of yoga or stretching routine. If you are under a physician’s care, you should consult with them before adding yoga or any other stretching or exercise routine.
Once you’ve had a moment to be “real” with yourself, it’s time to get started.
If this is your first time doing yoga or if you haven’t done yoga or guided stretching in a long time, then it is especially imperative that you listen to your body. Remember, being in good cardiovascular health does not equate with being flexible. It’s important that you’re honest with yourself and accepting of your current flexibility, otherwise you might risk injury. Some poses might actually feel good, while others may be uncomfortable. Mild discomfort is normal, as you’re engaging in positions that are meant to stretch out constricted muscles, but if you find that what you’re experiencing is far greater than discomfort and crosses over into the realm of pain, stop whatever it is you’re doing; actual pain is never a good sign.
As with any health and fitness routine, consult with your physician beforehand to ensure no health risks or concerns are present. Failure to do so could result in an unnecessary injury that could have you out of commission for several days or even weeks.
Yoga after riding
The yoga poses below are categorized as static stretches, which means that each pose should be held for as little as 10-60 seconds. If you consistently practice your yoga routine, you can even extend the hold time to as long as five minutes. The best time to engage your body in a yoga routine is either after a workout, or on a light exercise or recovery day. If you’re planning a long session of deep stretches, wait until a recovery day, but if you just want to give your body the TLC it needs from cycling, a shorter, lighter stretch session post-ride should be fine, as long as you don’t push yourself too hard.
Standard plank pose
The plank might be one of the most well known yoga positions. It seems that all exercise enthusiasts, from bodybuilders to Pilates gurus, incorporate the plank into their weekly routines in some way. There’s a reason for that - it’s a great move. The plank is actually a full body strengthening pose, but is especially noticeable to your core.
Target area: full body, but especially abs, shoulders, and triceps
Getting into plank position may be easy, but maintaining it is another story. Start by placing your hands under your shoulders and extend your legs behind you, like you’re going to do a pushup. Tighten up your body by grounding toes into your mat and squeezing glutes. Your gaze should follow approximately one foot in front of your hands, nose pointed toward the floor, neck parallel to the ceiling. After holding a plank for 15 to 30 seconds, you can untighten your body and rest. As you continue to strengthen your core, you can work toward a one, two, or even five minute hold. Three sets of planks is generally recommended. Don’t forget to breathe.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: Be careful not to hyperextend or lock your knees. Also keep your body tight, like a plank, to prevent your lower back from sagging. One more thing to pay attention to is your hips - they should never be lifted higher than your shoulders. If you find that the standard plank is a bit more challenging than what you were hoping for, the forearm plank is a modified version. Instead of resting on your hands, you’ll place your forearms shoulder width on the mat, elbows aligned right below shoulders and arms parallel to your body. Your hands can either be palm down or clasped together, depending on what’s more comfortable for you.
Sphinx plank pose
The sphinx pose is another popular yoga move that is easy to learn and perform. The sphinx is a good choice for cyclists who experience lower back discomfort associated with the hunched over riding position, which causes your abs to become compressed and your back muscles to get stretched out. It positions your body in a way that is opposite the position you would ride in, which helps restore the natural curve of the spine and reduces the lower back and shoulder stiffness. It also helps open up the shoulders, which often become stiff when riders compensate for weak abs by placing additional, unnecessary weight on their upper body.
Target area: lower back, chest, shoulders
Lay on your stomach, pressing your forearms into the mat. Gently press up so that your upper back lifts up, while keeping the pubic bone grounded on your mat. Your elbows should hug your sides and shoulders should be kept together, but pulled down and back. To get an even deeper stretch, rotate your thighs slightly inward, but continue to press your body into the mat. Hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: Hyperextension of the back is a concern with the sphinx pose. The goal is to stretch and strengthen your back, not to experiment with how far you can lift off from the ground. To decrease the likelihood of hyperextending and to maintain a strong core, pay attention to your leg width; your legs should be hip width or wider apart. Remember to be aware of your body and its limits.
Head-to-knee forward bend pose
The Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose doesn’t look very special, but it can work magic on a cyclist’s overstressed lower body.
Target area: hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back
This pose is as simple as it sounds! Sit on your mat, both legs extended in front of you. While keeping the right leg straight, bend in the left leg. Your knee should be on the ground and your left foot should be against your inner right thigh. Slowly fold your body over your right leg, reaching your belly toward your right thigh, and extending your hands toward your foot. If you can reach your foot, you can gently grab onto it. If not, you can either reach for your ankle or loop a strap around your foot. Hold each pose for 30 to 60 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: Be careful not to hyperextend the knees. Also pay attention to the bent-leg foot position - it shouldn’t slide under the straight leg.
Traditional pigeon pose (traditional or reclined)
Many yoga lovers describe their feelings toward the Pigeon Pose as that of a “love-hate” relationship. While it may be one of the most uncomfortable poses, it also happens to be one of the most effective at opening up the hips.
Target area: hip flexors, glutes, groin, hamstrings
Pigeon pose is a bit more difficult to get into, but very much worth the effort. Begin on all fours. Slowly move the right knee up toward your right hand, angling your leg like a clock hand pointing to the two. Once you’ve positioned your right knee and leg, carefully slide your left leg back as far as your body will allow. You will likely be upright on your hands as you feel gravity pull your hips forward and down. If you have a bit more flexibility in your hips, you can try resting on your forearms instead of your hands. Switch legs and repeat.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: Your hips should remain square to the floor to ensure you are getting the best opening possible and to avoid placing unnecessary pressure on your back. The leg that is bent should have an external rotation and the leg that is straight behind you should have an internal rotation. Because of the depth of the stretch, you might find that the Reclined Pigeon Pose is more feasible. Simply lay on your back with your legs folded downward, feet near your butt. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, creating a number “4” with your legs, and press the right knee away from you. For a bigger stretch, lift your left leg off the ground and pull it towards your body.
Runner's lunge pose
The Runner’s Lunge is a highly effective pose to help open up the hips and groin, as well as stretch out tense legs, which happen to be the biggest problem areas for cyclists.
Target area: hip flexors, groin, legs
Runner’s Lunge is easiest to get into from the plank position. Step forward with your right leg, placing it outside of your hands. Then lower your left knee to the ground, sinking your hips forward. If you’d like a deeper stretch, you can try lowering yourself to your forearms instead of your hands. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: A commonly made mistake is to use the leg muscles to hold up the hips, which will inhibit the effectiveness of the pose. Instead of using your legs to hold up your hips, release your hips and let gravity give you a deeper stretch.
Another popular one, the Butterfly pose can feel a bit aggressive at first, but will leave your hips and thighs feeling significantly looser.
Target area:inner thighs, groin, hips/hip flexors
Start by sitting with your chest lifted and your back long. When you exhale, bend in your knees and bring the soles of your feet together so that they’re touching. Rely on gravity to pull your knees down naturally without forcing them. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. If you feel like you’re ready to take things to the next level, then you can fold your body over your knees, reaching your arms out above your head, palms face down. You can aim to reach your forehead to your feet or your chest toward the floor, whichever you prefer.
To avoid injury, be mindful of your form: Many people often misjudge the possibility of injury based on the simplicity of this pose. But don’t be fooled - you can absolutely hurt yourself if you’re not careful. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits and stop if you start to feel pain.
- Whenever possible, start out on the beginner level of a yoga pose. It’s better to start out too easy and increase intensity than to initially push yourself too hard, resulting in injury. If the pose you’re attempting is too difficult, then don’t hesitate to look online for a modified version.
- The duration of time for which you should hold each pose will vary from one person to the next. It’s recommended that your hold time goal start out between 15 to 30 seconds. As you continue practicing yoga, you can slowly increase how long you hold each pose.
- Using bolsters, blocks, or rolled up towels to help you better attain a stretch is okay and actually recommended! Bolsters and blocks (or rolled up towels) are a great method for closing the gap, particularly for beginners. You might find that some poses, even modified for beginners, still prove to be impossibly difficult. A bolster can literally close the gap between your body and the mat, offering you the support you need so that you can safely use gravity to deepen your stretch.
The bottom line
Bicycling comes with a wide range of health benefits, but to get the most out of your rides, you need to incorporate some yoga into your weekly workout regimens. With thousands of years of history to reflect upon, yoga has proven to be an effective method to improve breath control, flexibility, muscle awareness, and postural health. It also promotes a mind-body connection through conscious breathing, aids in the recovery process, and just makes the body feel and function better. The question shouldn’t be, “Why should I be doing yoga?” It should be, “Why aren’t I doing yoga?”