There is the romantic side of cycling: being social, getting fit and healthy, and spending time drinking coffee and eating banana bread. And there is the dark side: the repetitive movement under load which can cause poor postural habits and in time, injury. It doesn’t look great and it certainly doesn’t feel great!
Cyclists tend to ride with a lumbar flexion which means losing the natural lumbar lordotic curve position of the lower back. This comes from being hunched forward over the handle bars and pedalling. It also means that your pelvis compresses the intervertebral discs and on top of that you are applying force.
Over time, poor movement patterns are developed and lead to poor posture and pain. When cycling is painful, you spend less time on the bike. This is where strengthening exercises can reverse the pain and make you a stronger and better rider.
How can Pilates help you ride stronger and pain free?
Pilates helps to develop strength in the deep intrinsic muscles of your core and makes you more ‘body aware’ and conscious of how to move your body efficiently rather than just relying on the superficial extremities of the body. Don’t get me wrong, the extremities are very important, but Pilates complements your fitness and can help you improve your cycling performance and reduce your back pain which will put you ahead of the pack.
Pilates will support and strengthen your back, which is an area so many riders complain about during time trials, hill sprints or long road rides. What does this mean? A stronger core can be achieved with the right Pilates exercises which translates directly into more power, better performance, less pain and fatigue and better posture on and off the bike. That said, Pilates is not only for the back, it can cover different areas of your body including back strength, core strength, neck and shoulder issues and glute issues – but your exercises can target specific areas when you need it to.
As a Pilates teacher, the advantage which I see in Pilates compared with other forms of exercise is the way it is taught. The Pilates method was created by Joseph H Pilates during World War 1 where he trained fellow internment camp inmates in his system of awareness of the breath, alignment of the spine, controlled movement patterns and core and body strength. Pilates focuses on achieving better quality movements and functionality. For example, a highly active, fit and strong looking person can have a weak core if they are not engaging these muscles correctly. Quite often, people tend to brace their rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles) instead of using their deep core muscles.
Often cyclists will need to need to focus on back and core strength, endurance and mobility, hip flexor, thigh and hamstring flexibility, stability of the pelvis and being active in a neutral pelvis.
Pilates exercises for cyclists
Here are 7 Pilates exercises which are beneficial for cyclists. You can follow the guides and by spending 10 minutes a few times each week, you will start to notice a difference to your comfort and performance in the bike.
1. Cat Stretch
This focuses on mobility of the spine, moving it through flexion and extension sequentially from the tailbone to the head, like a smooth flowing wave.
Begin with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
Inhale. Exhale and tuck the tailbone under and sequentially round the spine towards the sky into an angry cat (or Harbour Bridge) position finishing with your head Stay here and take a breath in.
Exhale and tuck the tail bone out, lengthening the spine in the other direction following with a little look out of the head.
6 – 8 repetitions
2. Four Point Thoracic Rotation
The spine moves in all different directions and the thoracic spine (mid to upper area) can become tight, particularly when cycling regularly. This exercises helps to open the front of the shoulders and chest and rotate the upper spine.
Begin with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
Inhale and press into the right hand as you turn towards the left keeping your hips still and raising your left arm to a position where your shoulder is not lifting up near your ear
Exhale and return back to the start position.
3 repetitions with 4 – 5 on each side.
3. Hamstring Stretch
This exercise stretches the backs of the legs. Having more flexibility in the hamstrings can help a cyclist maintain a better back position. Tight hamstrings will pull the pelvis under and can place load on the lower back which can cause pain. Flexibility in the hamstrings can help cyclists avoid knee pain and back pain that are common with this sport. This leg flexibility will also help you to achieve a good strong pedal stroke.
Lay on your back ensuring you are in a nice long line.
Bend your left leg and keep your foot flat on the mat.
Extend your right leg and loop a resistance/stretch band or a rolled up towel around the pads underneath your toes of your right foot. Grasp the ends of the band in both hands keeping your shoulders down and while keeping your right leg long (with a slighty soft knee) gently direct the leg closer in toward your upper body. Stop when you feel the stretch in the back of your right leg.
Hold for 45 seconds. Then to the ITB stretch on the same side before changing.
4. ITB Stretch
This is a great exercise to continue on the same leg after your hamstring stretch. Tight ITB (iliotibial band) is common amongst those who perform a prolonged repetitive activity. Particularly running and cycling. A tight ITB can cause pain and tenderness on the outside of the knee. You can see if yours is tight or tender simply by palpating down the side of your leg
As above, keeping the band or towel underneath the toes of your right foot. Take the two ends of the band in to the left hand and lengthen right arm by your side.
Gently direct the leg across to the left of the body until you feel a stretch through the outside area of your right hip and down the right side of the leg.
5. Side Stretch
The external obliques draw the ribs closer towards the hips – which is that of a seated position of a cyclist. These muscles can become tight and inflexible and forgotten about. A lateral stretch of the torso for a cyclist will feel pretty delicious!
Sit cross legged propped on a block, or you can sit on a ball or a seat. Ensure your spine is long.
Inhale and reach your right arm to the sky, keeping the shoulder down.
Exhale and stretch over to the left – ensuring your right butt cheek stays planted. Think about lengthening from your right glute all the way to your right finger tips whilst reaching to the left. Try not to lean back or forward. In fact, picture you are doing this exercise between two walls – one in front and one behind – and don’t hit the wall. Inhale and return to the start.
Repeat 8 times on each side.
This is great for getting extension through the upper spine particularly after it has been rounded forward for so long whilst cycling.
Lay on your stomach and gently separate the legs slightly wider than hip distance. Gently rotate them out.
Place your arms in a “W” position. Think about lengthening your spine before you move.
Inhale and gently place some pressure through your hands and elbows.
Exhale to lengthen and lift, keeping the shoulders down, chest broad, lifting the elbows off the ground.
Depending on your flexiblity will depend upon your hand position. If you are a tighter you will want your hands further forward of the body. If you are quite flexible, then you can move them closer in like our lovely Katrina has. Don’t think bigger is better with this stretch as you don’t want to “jam” into your lower back.
7. Thigh Stretch
This exercise stretches the front of the thigh and psoas (hip flexor) which has been hard at work when you are on the bike pedalling away. These muscles become tight and lengthening them with this stretch will feel amazing.
Start in a kneeling position and place your right foot in front of the body ensuring the right knee is above or slightly behind the line of the right foot.
Inhale and lengthen the spine
Exhale. Start to lean forward (staying lengthened) and give your right glute a gentle squeeze until you feel a stretch in the left thigh/front of hip. Hold and breathe for 45 seconds. Repeat again on this side then change sides.