Cycling is a great form of cardiovascular exercise but it can occasionally create some aches and pains. It’s important to add a proper stretching routine to your post cycle recovery. Here are six Pilates tips to keep your body happy on and off your bike.
1. Stretch your hamstrings…properly
The hamstring muscles pass over both the hip and the knee, long periods of sitting shorten these muscles and pull the pelvis into a tuck, reducing space in the hip sockets and knee joints. If you stretch your hamstrings effectively you will help to realign the pelvis back to its neutral position and give your joints some space (less knee and hip problems). You will also help your hip flexors to release.
When stretching your hamstrings you need to keep the knee straight and the pelvis untucked. The optimal way to stretch the hamstrings is by taking away the pressures of gravity and lying down on your back. Keep the resting leg straight on the floor and place a towel or a stretch band around the ball of the foot of the stretching leg. Flex your foot. Make sure both legs are straight even if that means your leg is not high because lifting the leg up to the ceiling will enforce the tucking of the pelvis in most people. Hold the stretch for 1 minute each side.
2. Give your hip flexors a break
The hip flexors are the only group of muscles that connect the ribcage, spine, pelvis and legs. They work to bring the knee up and around when cycling. Sitting keeps the hip flexors in a shortened, tight state. Tight hip flexors will affect the alignment and workings of any or all of the above parts. It is common to have imbalances in the hip flexors if you favour one leg when you pedal.
It’s helpful to think of releasing the hip flexor muscles before stretching as they’re a muscle group that are difficult to relax. Getting rid of gravity and lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat the ground is a great way to start the releasing process. While you’re there bring your awareness to your breathing.
After lying on your back for a few minutes straighten both legs on the floor and stretch one leg away from you at a time. Imagine the leg starts under the ribcage and gently stretch the leg away from your centre, increasing the movement in the hip with each repetition. It’s good to do 20 reps each leg.
To stretch the hip flexors come up to kneeling and step one foot forward. Tuck the pelvis under as if you a flattening out your lower back and lean forward into the front leg. Keep both hip bones facing forward and keep as upright as possible. You want to feel the stretch around the top of the hip.
3. Untuck your pelvis and find your glutes
You need the power of Gluteus Maximus and the stability of Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus to support the pelvis in cycling. Most people need to work up to a full squat with some support as they have limitations in the joints due to tight muscles. Others have good range of motion in the joints but no strength. Good assists in helping you to squat are standing against the wall or holding onto to a chair.
The most important tips are to prevent your pelvis from tucking under too much and to keep your weight back into your glutes rather than forward into your quads. To start with only go as deep into the squat as you can, keep your pelvis in a neutral position as these pictures show. The image on the left has the correct position, the image on the right has a tucked pelvis.
4. Release neck and upper back tension
If you experience neck pain, headaches or shoulder stiffness after riding it may be due to the fit of your bike. Or one of the following habits. Do you over grip the handlebars? Do you lock your elbows? Are your shoulders up around your ears?
A good Pilates exercise to address neck pain and shoulder tightness is called the Diamond Press. Lie down on your front with your elbows out to the side and forearms forward over your head so your arms are in a diamond shape. You then press the elbows down into the floor, imagine rolling a marble away with your nose and lifting the head up followed by the upper body. It’s not a big lift of the back. You’re engaging your neck extensors and your mid and lower trapezius. It is helpful to think of your breastbone to stay down towards the floor but open.
5. Your nervous system needs some attention
Cycling requires a lot of work for our sympathetic nervous system which is also known as our ‘fight or flight’ response. This is what protects you from threat, keeps you moving fast and enables the flow of adrenaline in the body. Cycling on busy roads, through traffic or off road all require the body to be on vigilant watch for threat.
When we’re off the bike switching off the sympathetic nervous system is important to regulate the body and calm it down. This should be when the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, the ‘rest and digest’ system. Sleep, rest and meditation are associated with a healthy parasympathetic nervous system. Often people find they have difficulty turning off the adrenaline, fight or flight system and need to learn how to relax. By practising awareness of the breath, doing some warming down exercises and stretching we can help the body to return to a relaxed state.
6. Take a Pilates class
Taking the time to do a Pilates class once a week will improve your flexibility, address imbalances you might have in your muscles and lubricates your joints. Pilates teaches your brain to isolate and become more aware of parts of your body you are not used to thinking about.
Many cyclists who add Pilates to their exercise routine learn a new way to analyse their cycling technique and a better way to relax and recharge their batteries.
Alicia Moran is founder of Arc Pilates in Preston, Melbourne and has been a Pilates teacher for over fifteen years. Arc Pilates offers mat and studio classes for all ages and levels of fitness.