Any one who has watched Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome or 2018 Tour de France champ Geraint Thomas over the last few years will be aware that when it comes to cycling, success depends so much on aerodynamic profile.
The physical ability to close the human frame down is essential, to hunch and curl all the body’s levers and pivots around the bike like a clamp so that wind resistance is minimised and there is no wastage in the wattage produced from the legs.
So you would be forgiven for thinking that there would be no place for yoga in the training programme of a cyclist because yoga’s aim would seem to be the exact opposite: to open up the body and fill the air in some very un-aerodynamic ways - have you seen super soldier pose?
However, an increasing number of riders, both recreational and professional, are now realising that there is a surprising synergy between the two activities. Lexie Williamson, author of Yoga for Cyclists’ (Bloomsbury Publishing) specialises in readying lycra-clad bodies for the rigour of a sport performed through a limited range of motion where the legs are neither fully extended or fully ﬂexed. Her expertise lies in applying yoga stretches, core work, breathing and mental training techniques to endurance athletes’ training programmes. As a cyclist herself, she knows what the body goes through in the saddle.
“A flatter, more aero position is one of the key performance gains to be had through yoga,” says Lexie, who specialises in Vinyasa yoga “A rider with a stiff back and hips will have a very arched, flexed spine, which can lead to lower back ache and tension on the shoulders and neck as they are forced to crane the head to look forwards. By stretching the back and hip flexors the pelvis can gradually tip a little more anteriorly and this creates a flatter back position.”
If a cyclist can achieve this pelvic tilt and bring the natural curves of the spine back into play it will result in good aerodynamics and sustainable comfort.
“A lunge a day is the best stretch for gaining that tilt as it stretches the hip flexors,” advises Lexie. “This could be done as a standing Warrior I, just make sure you are tucking your backside in.”
The core is another area where, Lexie believes, a yoga programme can deliver on-bike benefits: “A strong core is vital for transferring power, maintaining good riding posture and injury prevention. Riders with poor core strength slump in the saddle when tired and place undue pressure on the shoulders and wrists.”
According to Lexie, poses that mimic riding position, like all fours exercises are a great starting point: “Cat/Cow sequence connects well to the core. Then maybe forearm planks dropping one knee down to the floor at a time to mimic pedalling. Or holding still and just swaying the hips from side to side to create that little bit of instability we get when pedalling the bike.” Try to incorporate poses that imitate the riding position, rather than V sit type exercises that place more stress on the overworked hip flexors.
And yoga’s influence on cycling doesn’t end with bike biomechanics because it can also have a huge impact on something that many cyclists obsess about more than the yellow jersey: oxygen. Famously, competitive cyclists are obsessed with the stuff, from V02 max levels to having the lung capacity of a herd of elephants, they know that oxygen consumption is critical for performance because that’s what your muscles are screaming out for when you’re pushing hard up a climb. Obviously, the process that is going to deliver that oxygen is breathing and yogis have been singing the praises of focused, controlled breathing for centuries with pranayama at the core of most yoga practice.
This connection has been backed up by research from the State University of New York, which took 15 competitive athletes and tested whether 30 minutes of daily breathing exercises for four weeks boosted their endurance in a time-trial. It did, by an average of four per cent, compared to controls and if you’ve ever been to a yoga class you will have come across the concept of belly breathing – recruiting your diaphragm, the muscle that runs across the bottom of the ribcage, to breathe deeply, which pushes the maximum amount of air through the body and floods the body with oxygen.
“I’ve worked with a cyclist who was panting fast and I taught him slower, deep diaphragmatic breathing, which really helped him,” reveals Lexie. This is because when carbon dioxide levels are raised, red blood cells release more oxygen. Slower, controlled breathing retains carbon dioxide and so makes more oxygen available to the body.
Slower and deeper breathing techniques can be used to increase volume that impact performance but they can also be co-opted as a mental tool. “You can use breathing as a metronome to maintain pace, to stay calm and focussed,” says Lexie. “Personally, I also use it as a counting mechanism when I’m getting tired. For example, inhaling for ten seconds, exhaling for ten, which works well on long, flat stretches.”
So what you learn about the breath and the body on the mat can be applied in the saddle, whether you’re trying to stay on someone’s wheel during a lung-busting climb or are simply out on your Sunday morning club ride. No matter what kind of cyclist you are, you will come to the same conclusion: yoga is the yin to cycling’s yang.
This article was written for Warrior Addict by the awesome Jon Axworthy.
We would like to give credit to The Week and Yogi Comms for the images used in this article.