Pilates for Road Cyclists

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Why on Earth would I want to do Pilates indoors if the reason I cycle is to get out and about and feel the wind whistling through my helmet? Hopefully this post will help give you an insight into how Pilates can improve your performance and endurance on the bike.

As anyone who’s ever ridden a bike belonging to someone else knows, cycling position is all-important. You might feel comfortable for the first hour or so, but a keen cyclist will be out dawn to dusk, often covering over one hundred miles in a day. Even if your bike fits you well, the cycling position is challenging to sustain. As you fatigue, your posture suffers – shoulders become hunched, the head drops so that the neck has to be put in an increasingly strained position. The stomach muscles tire after supporting your upper body position all day and the pelvis tilts backwards to compensate. This can lead to a lot of strain on the low back and reduced power output in the legs.

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There are lots of measurements available online to help you set your bike up to fit you better, and to get better power from the legs. However, everyone is different and your own personal shape and abilities might not suit a generic set-up. You might have stiffer hips than others, or a history of shoulder pain, both of which will make a different set-up work better for you. If you can, a proper bike-fit where your power output can be assessed before and after can help you whizz along effortlessly!

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There’s no denying that getting out on the bike is the most specific training required to build up the cycling specific muscles. So, where does Pilates fit in? Pilates trains stability throughout the trunk, which helps support the quads, hamstrings and calf muscles as they transmit force into the pedal, and support the shoulders and neck as they maintain a steady position.

Watch a few moments of the pros in time trial action, even when fatigued at the end, their upper body barely moves when they are sitting on the saddle. This is down to spectacular muscle endurance.

Even though cycling is generally an endurance sport, there is good evidence that strength and power training improve endurance performance. These exercises do not need to be done too frequently, twice a week is sufficient. Therefore, the exercises do not cause the cyclists’ feared bulk-up. Instead, supplementing training with a full body regime, like Pilates, helps the muscles fire more effectively. This leads to more efficient cycling – faster with less effort, who wouldn’t want that?!

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The focus in Pilates for cyclists is on maintaining strength and endurance in the cycling position but also to recognise that cycling posture is not sustainable: when a cyclist is not on the bike, they must be able to come back out of the cycling position into a more neutral posture to prevent aches and pains arising in day to day activities. For example, in cycling the shoulderblades are more tilted and rounded than in upright standing (and this is exaggerated in a cyclist who spends a lot of time on the aero bars). A Pilates programme for a cyclist can help to strengthen them in this position and also teach good posture when they get off the bike.

Similarly, around the hips and pelvis, a strong core is vital in cycling, but the power generation comes from the gluteals (bottom muscles), hip flexors, quads (thigh muscles) and hamstrings (at the back of the thigh). The power is transmitted through the calf and shin muscles which keep the feet in a stable position to transfer the power into the pedals. It’s important to get the foot properly aligned via the set up of the cleats to make sure of good alignment in the legs. Getting the muscles working well together is also vital for good cycling performance. The quads and glutes push the pedal down while the hamstrings and hip flexors pull the opposite pedal up. A well-designed Pilates programme for a cyclist will get these muscles firing well and improve their endurance.

Pilates for life!

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At the start of a new year, we thought we’d take a bit of time away from focusing on how Pilates can benefit different conditions, aches & pains and instead look at how Pilates can be a life-long habit, incorporated into your lifestyle. We are all meant to exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week (yep, at least 5 days a week!), and children should exercise at least double that.

How many of you hear that and are put off because you don’t like gyms, don’t enjoy zumba/jazzercise/whatever exercise trend this year is going to throw at us? Does the thought of going out for a run makes you want to velcro yourself to the couch?!

If you already attend a Pilates class, why not increase the good feeling you get after a class by incorporating it into other days of the week and fitting it around your schedule? Listen to two clients who have come to Pilates for different reasons, and are sticking to it, not only to prevent recurrence of problems, but to boost overall health, give some ‘me time’ every day and incorporate enjoyable exercise into their lifestyle.

Chloe, 35, first came to Pilates when pregnant with her second child. ‘I didn’t have any problems during my first pregnancy but then had quite a short gap between pregnancies. I was very surprised when early on I started to get low back pain and started to struggle bending down to look after and play with my toddler. This got to the point where I was unable to walk for any distance without pain.

‘I went for a one to one Pilates session with a physiotherapist and was helped out with some exercises to do at home to help relieve my discomfort, I was also shown some safe strengthening exercises to help improve the power in my leg and bottom muscles which made walking slightly more comfortable. I was also reminded to get started with my pelvic floor exercises!

‘I was hooked! Although I was so busy at work and with my toddler, I was encouraged to take some time for myself every day, sometimes 5 minutes was all I could manage, but it was so important to me to get that time. I was able to get through the rest of my pregnancy keeping the pain under control.

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‘As soon as I had the baby I signed up for postnatal Pilates as I knew how much I needed to do to get back into shape and be fit for my little ones. I started soon after my six week check and again made sure I took the time to do a little bit at home each day as well as my weekly class. It was even tougher to fit that in! I really think that’s what helped me recover so quickly from the birth.

‘I am now back to work and managing to fit in some running and trips to the gym in my lunch breaks. I’m even busier at home, but still try to get that daily five to ten minutes to myself as it gives me such a mental boost and helps me know I’m looking after my body long-term.’

Alan, 40, is a former rower turned triathlete. ‘Years of rowing and repetitive training had taken its toll on my back. Yes, I was fit, but I was inflexible and would get frequent bouts of pain all through my spine and often into my shoulders and hips. I saw a Physiotherapist who explained that my core muscles were not as strong as they could be and the load was being taken by muscles which weren’t supposed to work so hard to hold my posture. The physio suggested Pilates and I eventually tried a class.

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‘I could have kicked myself for not going sooner! After my first session I felt better already – taller, stretched out and much more comfortable with moving than I had felt in a long time. I couldn’t wait to go back again the next week and eventually signed up to two classes a week.

‘As part of my training I had always done some daily stretching, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I wondered if maybe my routine was right for me as I had been doing the same stretches for years – hamstrings, quads, calves, shoulders. I booked myself in for a one to one Pilates session where we went over what I did, how much time I had to work at home and what I was hoping to achieve, The Physio designed a programme which really goes for the areas where I tend to stiffen up regularly and also gave me some exercises to support these joints in my spine to prevent them from stiffening up quite so readily.

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‘Even though I’m 20 years older than when I started rowing, I feel in better shape than ever. The one change has been the Pilates and it’s been a great addition to my training!’

So Pilates is not only if you are recovering from an injury or working through pain, think about how good it makes you feel and how you could experience that more frequently. If you’re not sure what you should be doing at home, see us for a one to one where we will personalise a programme for you.