If you follow me on Instagram, you likely saw that I was in Moab recently grinding it out on the trails with my mountain bike (don’t tell my Orbea). I had an incredible time out there, but riding a hardtail over 60 miles of slickrock did a number to my low back. Fortunately, I’m a yoga teacher, so I knew just what to do to relieve the pain and stiffness in this common problem area for cyclists (and most of the population, for that matter). No pills required.
Low back pain, which I will discuss often on this site, can arise for many reasons, including poor bike fit, a lack of flexibility (especially in the hips and hamstrings), weak core muscles, bad posture on and off the bike, anatomical imbalances, injury and more. Prolonged flexion of the spine (i.e. hunching over your handle bars) compresses the vertebrae and creates tension in the surrounding muscles and connective tissue. Practicing yoga consistently, especially the poses listed below, will greatly increase your comfort on the bike, not to mention improve your form and reduce stress.
While there are lots of great yoga poses from various styles of yoga that can target low back pain, I often employ the poses and methodology from a style of yoga called “Yin” Yoga to reduce tension and recover from excursions that are particularly hard on the body.
There are many science based reasons that yoga, particularly Yin, can benefit the low back of an athlete (which I will discuss in-depth in a later post). The important thing to know for now is that Yin targets the connective tissues (e.g. fascia, tendons, and ligaments) rather than the muscles. Most vigorous, fast paced styles of yoga like vinyasa or power yoga create strength and length in the muscles, which is great, but won’t necessarily facilitate recovery or relieve aches if the issue is fascia related, which it often is.
Fascia, or the “webbing” of connective tissue that holds together our muscles and organs, is a highly complex tissue that is often ignored when trying to treat aches and pains, especially in the low back. Fascia has many important purposes in the body (again, more on that to come in a future post), and has a much higher density of sensory nerve receptors than muscle does (1), meaning that it is more sensitive to pain. Fascia can also contract (due to the presence of contractile cells) under certain conditions such as stress or injury (2).
As I mentioned, Yin Yoga exercises connective tissues like fascia and is not so much about stretching muscle. This style of yoga is thought to release the contraction of fascia, strengthen connective tissue, and improve flexibility and range of motion. This should be the goal of any cyclist trying to address low back pain, which is why I love it so much.
The following yoga poses are ideal if you want to help your low back bounce back from a hard ride. These poses accomplish this by stretching and reducing tension in the muscles and connective tissues around the spine, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which will reduce inflammation and release tension and contraction of the fascia in the low back).
Before you practice:
Because we are focusing connective tissue, it is important to relax the surrounding muscles, especially the muscles that don’t support the shape of the pose (i.e. why are you still clenching your jaw??). This requires holding poses longer, for 3-5 minutes, which can make it harder to stay present if you are used to faster paced classes or just new to yoga in general. If your mind can’t stop drifting to the sweet cycling kit you saw on Pinterest or the burrito waiting for you in the fridge, I suggest counting or visualizing each inhale and exhale as you hold. It gets easier the more you practice.
Always check with your doctor first before trying yoga or any exercise program. Do not attempt if you have severe, acute or chronic pain or any type of injury.
1. Butterfly Pose
Cyclist benefits: This pose is a juicy low back opener and is great for cyclists compared to other folds because it doesn’t require loose hamstrings, which none of us cyclists have.
How to get into the pose:
Notes and options:
2. Supported Bridge Pose
Cyclist benefits: This pose is a gentle backbend (opposite of butterfly pose) and works to lengthen the spine and reduce tension and compression in the lower (lumbar) vertebrae. It also works to open up the frontline of the body which counteracts all of the rounding of the shoulders and upper back we do on our bicycles. It is also particularly good for relieving stress and strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system, which is extremely important for recovery from training. One of my favorites.
How to get into the pose:
Notes and options: If you don’t feel anything, place a second block on top of the first block so that your hips are lifted even higher.
3. Sphinx Pose
Cyclist benefits: Sphinx is a pose that deeply compresses the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum, which, when done correctly, strengthens spinal muscles and promotes a healthy spine (as long as you have no injury or other limitation). The type of vertebral compression created in this pose (posterior compression of disks) counteracts the compression that occurs while you ride (anterior compression of disks). It also counteracts the rounding we do on our bikes by opening the chest and shoulders. Finally, this pose lengthens respiratory muscles that get constricted during a bike ride, making it easier to breathe.
How to get into the pose:
Notes and options:
4. Supine Twist
Cyclist benefits: Twisting is a great thing to do at the end of a practice because it calms the nervous system and releases tension in the lower back. As you should already know by now, that translates to recovery. When your back is aching from a long ride, this pose does wonders.
Getting into the pose:
Notes and options:
Try these poses out and let me know what you think. Remember, consistent practice is what leads to results!
And of course, contact me if you would like to work with me 1 on 1 to learn more about these and other poses that can help you feel better on and off of your bike.
Take a moment to observe your breath – its rhythm, its depth, and the nature in which it travels in and out of your body. Is it shallow? Constricted? Rapid? Heavy? Or is it slow, fluid and easy? Do you feel it mostly in your chest, or do you feel it in the expansion of your belly? Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth, or both?
How many times do you consciously focus your attention on your breathing while on a ride? Probably not many until you are halfway up an epic climb and about to bust a lung.
The truth is that most cyclists, runners and other types of endurance athletes don’t think about their breath until they run out of it and find themselves gasping for air. That is, unless they regularly practice yoga.
Yogis already know the endless benefits of focused, controlled breathing, but few athletes know that many yogic breathing techniques can significantly improve their performance on the bike and attenuate some of the suffering during their next sprint for QOM (or KOM).
As you can probably already see, there are a lot of things going on when you breathe, and a lot of factors contribute to the quality of your breath. If you are not paying attention to your breath, you are ignoring one of your most valuable performance tools as a cyclist.
If you want to take advantage of your entire aerobic capacity, you need to learn how to breathe efficiently. This is a huge way yoga can benefit endurance athletes.
First, some breathing physiology.
We have all experienced what it feels like to pass lactic threshold during exercise (i.e. when you start to switch from aerobic to anaerobic metabolic pathways during exercise) - ventilation rate, or breathing rate, increases and you might start panting in an attempt to supply the muscles with oxygen.
This type of rapid, labored breathing which typically occurs when the heart rate starts to spike is a relatively inefficient way to deliver oxygen to your muscles and remove metabolic waste like carbon dioxide. If you pay attention to your breath while you are gasping for air, you will notice that it is constricted to your chest and upper lungs, which means you are not utilizing the entire capacity of your lungs to take in oxygen. Oxygen also takes more time to diffuse from the air your breath into the blood flowing through your lung’s capillaries than carbon dioxide takes to move from your blood into the air you exhale. Shallow breathing therefore doesn’t give oxygen enough time to diffuse into your blood, so by the time you exhale, you carry valuable oxygen (along with carbon dioxide) out with your breath.
In addition, shallow, hastened breathing triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system or “fight or flight” response, creating tension in the muscles and a causing a hormonal environment in the body that will cause you to tire and burn out faster. That’s no bueno on a bike ride if you are trying to make it very far.
Want to know your secret breathing weapon on the bike?
Or “belly” breathing, as us yogis call it.
First, what is the diaphragm? The diaphragm is a dome-shaped skeletal muscle that sits below the lungs and divides the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity in your torso. It does up to 80% of the work when you breathe at rest, and it is also the most energy-efficient muscle that you use to breathe. This means that it takes more energy from your body to breathe when you rely more on secondary respiratory muscles like the intercostal and sternocleidomastoid muscles than when you use the diaphragm to its full capacity. This is important to note because endurance sports are all about energy conservation and efficiency.
The effectiveness of training respiratory muscles to enhance endurance exercise performance has been repeatedly demonstrated in the scientific literature (1-5), and many of these studies used cyclists as test subjects. In a study conducted by Holm and colleagues (1), cyclists and triathletes were trained to breathe more slowly and deeply. With the use of a metronome to monitor pace, the athletes’ breathing rate was gradually reduced over the course of 4 weeks. Those athletes who received respiratory training improved the endurance capacity of their respiratory muscles (such as the diaphragm) by 12%, which is huge.
If you can learn how to breathe using your diaphragm on and off of the bike, you will become a more efficient rider by supplying more oxygen to your muscles, improving the endurance capacity of your breathing muscles, and keeping you below your lactic threshold. You will also recover more quickly during intense bouts of exercise like sprints and climbs.
Exercise: How to belly breathe
Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are on the ground, like you are setting up for bridge pose.
Place one hand on your belly so it rests on or near your navel, and one hand on your chest, about where your sternum lies.
Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Which hand moves up and down more? If you feel your hand on your chest moving more, you are restricting your breath to your upper lungs and not breathing efficiently. If your hand on your belly is moving up and down, great job! You are using your diaphragm to breathe. Your goal in the following exercise is to feel most if not all of the movement in your lower hand, the hand on your belly, and little to no movement in your hand on your chest.
Now begin to relax your stomach and breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, allow your belly to distend and your lower hand to rise. Visualize the breath moving down towards your lower hand, allowing it to naturally rise. This shouldn’t feel forced but it might feel unnatural if you are not used to breathing this way. At the same time, try to keep the hand on your chest from rising when you breathe in. The more deeply you are able to breathe into your belly, or diaphragm, the less the hand on your chest will move.
Then, while keeping the hand on your chest still, exhale slowly through your nose or pursed lips. Don’t force the breath out or contract your abdominal muscles – let it happen naturally. The pressure that the diaphragm creates in your abdominal cavity during your inhale will create a force pushes the air back out of your body when you stop breathing in, so there is no need to recruit additional muscles to expel your air.
The key to getting any benefit out of this exercise is consistent practice. Practice is what creates the neural pathways in your brain that make this type of breathing more automatic and there when you actually need it. It only takes 5 minutes a day. I like to set an alarm on my watch (your phone or FitBit works too), that reminds me throughout the day to breathe. Even if it is 30 seconds at a time. It all adds up and can make a profound difference. Added bonus: this will also reduce your stress levels throughout your day, which most of us really need.
Taking it to the bike:
Diaphragmatic breathing on the bike is a little harder, which is why it is important to practice at home or during your yoga practice. Due to the rounding of the upper body, the belly gets restricted, especially if you aren’t wearing bibs. On you next ride, focus on taking fewer but deeper breaths into your belly. It’s best to do this on a recovery ride in zone 1 or 2, and gradually practice in higher zones over time.
Remember, this takes time and patience. Eventually, as your brain starts to rewire itself, it will become more natural and you will have to think about it less. Trust in the biology and soon it will pay off.
Try it and let me know how it works for you.
If you are a cyclist or endurance athlete like me, you probably have a love affair with food. You think about it all the time and you like to eat A LOT of it. When you burn thousands of calories a week, even thousands of calories on a single ride, you have a lot of delicious work to do in order to replace what was lost and repair the body.
So I figured, what better way to launch my blog than to give you a tasty recipe that will fuel you up properly for your next workout?
Why this smoothie is so awesome:
It's whole food based, nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory, and of course, (because we are all yogis here, right?) vegan.
It also contains specific foods that are best suited to aid in recovery, like essential amino acids, starch, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Before we dive into the recipe and why it's so great, let's talk post-workout nutrition.
Recovery Nutrition 101
Sports nutritionists agree that the two most important nutrients after a workout are carbohydrates and protein, typically in a 2:1 ratio 30-60 minutes after completion, depending on the intensity and duration of your workout. After your ride or other workout, the carbs you consume replace lost glycogen (the form of carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver), and the protein you eat helps to repair and rebuild muscles. These two nutrients are synergistic, meaning that they work together in the body to perform the aforementioned (and other important) functions.
However, did you know that not all carbohydrate and protein sources are created equally, especially when it come to post-workout recovery?
You might already know the difference between simple and complex carbs, or perhaps even more about nutrient timing (i.e. the best times to eat these two groups of carbs). When you are eating a whole food diet, most of your carbohydrates will likely come from complex carbohydrate sources like fruit and starchy vegetables. But fruit and starch do different things in the body after eaten. The carbohydrates in fruit (e.g. fructose) will go to the liver first, whereas the carbs in starchy foods like potatoes and bread go directly to the muscles where they refill glycogen stores. From a muscle recovery perspective, replenishing glycogen is what we want to happen first, so starches like sweet potato are optimal to eat after a workout over other whole foods.
Similarly, the type of protein you eat after a workout can affect your body's ability to recover. Different protein sources have different assemblages of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Without nerding out on you too much (because it happens a lot), just remember that some amino acids are more important than others when your muscles are repairing themselves after exercise. These include essential amino acids (the ones your body can't make on its own), particularly the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Whew, I think that is enough science for today. Let's get to the recipe.
Green Recovery Smoothie:
Don't be scared about how green this smoothie looks - it doesn't taste like grass like a lot of blended green concoctions do.
What's great about this smoothie, other than the targeted nutrients (starch and BCAAs) and anti-inflammatory properties (from omega 3's and green leafy plants) it has, is that you can play around with macro-nutrient ratios depending on the type of workout you had. For example, more intense workouts will require more carbohydrates and protein post-workout relative to fat. Had an easy day? Take out the sweet potato and add in more flax seeds and avocado.
Let me know what you think, or what your favorite recovery foods are.
Stay tuned for more post-workout recovery recipes and a closer look at the science behind recovery nutrition.
Happy recovery everyone! Enjoy!