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Nov 27, 2015 – You might have seen that Peter Sagan tweeted a photo of himself stretching in a Belgian gym where he was working to strengthen his knee and hip joints over Thanksgiving week. You may not be the world road champion, but if you’re a regular bike rider who does gran fondos or gravel marathons—or if you’re just someone who loves riding a bike for fitness and fun—there has probably been a time during long rides when your back, shoulders, chest and arms ache from being hunched over for hours at a time. Or perhaps the muscles in your legs cramp up, or other parts of your body (or mind) start complaining. I know we mainly ride our bikes for pleasure, but maybe we all have a sadistic streak that tells us that pain is good. No pain, no gain, right?
Written by John Wilcockson
But how can we ease, or even eliminate, those pains?
Ever since bicycles have been around, cyclists have experienced discomfort in some form or other, and we’ve always been trying to alleviate the worst symptoms. Back in the late-19th century, when a six-day race literally meant riding a track bike for six days continuously, sleep deprivation (and even hallucinating) was the main enemy. Trainers would give their riders strychnine, brandy, caffeine and cocaine to keep them awake and dull the pain. Around the same time, the ancient Eastern arts of massage and yoga began to gain popularity in the West. Daily massage eventually became essential for pro bike racers, and today all the major road teams employ fulltime soigneurs (or carers) to provide their riders with full-body massage.
Yoga has not had as great an impact on the cycling world, even though the various poses—like the one Sagan was using this past week— are excellent for stretching the body and relaxing the brain. But several famed pro racers have used yoga in their prerace preparations. Rudi Altig, the legendary German rider from the 1960s, was as well known for standing on his head in track centers prior to competing in individual pursuit races as he was for winning the world pursuit title as both an amateur and professional. He said that practicing yoga helped him stretch his muscles and gain focus. His pro palmarès would include one world road championship, two major classics (Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders), one grand tour (the Vuelta a España) and 22 six-day wins.
Other world champions have used yoga to help stretch muscles and compose their thoughts, including Belgium’s 1970 rainbow jersey Jean-Pierre Monseré, Norway’s 2010 world road champion Thor Hushovd and Britain’s multiple Olympic and world champ and 2012 Tour de France winner Brad Wiggins. Tour competitors have also use another Eastern treatment, acupuncture. America’s first Tour rider Jonathan Boyer brought his own acupuncturist with him to one of his Tour rides in the 1990s; and at the 2014 Tour, Team Astana’s Belgian acupuncturist Eddy De Smedt treated race winner Vincenzo Nibali for pain recovery after every stage.
Compression socks have been around in cycling for a while, famously pioneered by 2010 Olympic road champion Samuel Sanchez, but few pro racers have said they have used what may be the very best pain-preventing exercise: Pilates. One of the few was American Levi Leipheimer, who used Pilates to strengthen his core strength. I’d heard also that this exercise system is great for improving your flexibility, alignment, breathing and endurance, so a few months ago I started using Pilates to improve my posture and strengthen the muscles that support the spine.
To find out more about the intricacies of Pilates, I spoke with Levi Nordquist, an expert instructor who has worked with professional dancers and rugby players at studios on both coasts and is currently with Uptown Pilates of New York. Nordquist is a former division 1 volleyball player and a recreational cyclist who takes all-day rides on his Cannondale, especially when he lived in Seattle. For a spell he worked at Lululemon, where he did yoga and CrossFit, and then tried Pilates. “It kind-of tied everything together,” he said. “I could do yoga and CrossFit, and do it well, but with Pilates I can now excel at those things.”
He liked the benefits so much that he trained to become a Pilates instructor, and when I worked with him this past summer I felt instant benefits even though my muscles are no longer those of a young man. “When you’re young and 20 you can do anything pretty much,” said Nordquist, who’s in his late-20s. “We’re used to working our body into a pulp and beating ourselves up, and really enjoying the pain of being sore. But when you’re older that pain of being sore is not necessarily a good thing. When you’re younger it’s good to find a balance of pushing yourself and control—and controlling which muscles are working. Now I’m trying to get more people into it because it’s still relatively new. With yoga, cycling and running, it’s one of the newest forms of exercise.”
I asked Nordquist, who’s 6-foot-3, how Pilates has helped his cycling. “When you’re biking you’re in a rounded position and you’re pushing,” he said, “so I’d be all quads and hamstrings, and my knees would get super-tight. And when I’d squat or sit down, especially after a long ride, there was always a slight ache…. Yoga helped it…but it was always so tight. Then, at the end of a volleyball tournament, I’d be cramping in my quads so bad that I couldn’t even move them.
“That didn’t seem right and I started to realize that it’s more about using the muscles that are closer to your center, your core, less of your extremities, and using the strong muscles to lift, and push and jump. So for cycling, it’s created more endurance. So rather than using 100-percent quad and hamstring, I’m using whatever percentage legs, a lot more hip and glutes, a lot of stomach to lift and be lighter on your seat.
“Your stomach has a lot more stamina than a lot of other muscles if you can train it. It can take its own beating…. Then, posture-wise, when you’re out riding a bike for long periods of time, and it’s so easy to sink into that rounded spine, but when you use your stomach and use your back muscles and lift your chest, and just use your whole body in conjunction, every muscle with every other muscle, it tends to provide for a longer riding experience, and a better experience off the bike.
“After long bike rides now, I’m not super-sore in just one area. My whole body’s worked a little bit more. So I don’t get as imbalanced. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed.”
Before I went to Uptown Pilates, I was introduced to the practice by a gentle female instructor, who showed me the different stretching exercises and machinery that’s used to strengthen your core muscles, but I had some far more vigorous workouts with Nordquist, who had me dripping with sweat within minutes. “If I can get a client to sweat,” he said, “they’re doing the exercise correctly and I’m teaching it correctly. You’re not trying to tear your body down, you’re trying to work it hard. I think Pilates should be hard, really hard because it’s not going to hurt you if you are doing it right. It’s good for you.”
I asked Nordquist how he would advise a cyclist who’s never done any similar exercise, such as yoga, to get into Pilates. “I would recommend yoga,” he said, “because if you’re really tight from riding a bike, a little yoga never hurt. Riding bikes is fun, so do something to complement it. If you’re doing weights in the gym, lift lighter weights to help make your body longer and leaner…. Don’t lift so heavy that you’re rounded in the shoulder.”
The essence of Pilates is that you work all your muscle groups in a deliberate way, rather than doing repetitive movements such as the ones we make when riding a bike. And among its biggest benefits are stronger core muscles and a straighter back. And if you do Pilates seriously, once or twice a week, you will likely prevent most, if not all, of those back, shoulder, chest and arm aches you get from being hunched over on those long rides. Give it a try!
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You can follow John at @johnwilcockson.