Pilates and yoga were, (and still are) a big part of my weekly routine in those formative years as an amateur cyclist. The year I started Pilates funnily enough coincided with one of the best years of my life on the bike. Co-incidence? I don’t think so. That being said, when I turned pro and moved overseas, I got a bit ‘lazy’, and finding a good Pilates class in English was challenging. So naturally I fell out of routine, and as a result of the higher physical demands on my body as a Pro, I ended up with Chronic lower back pain.
As cyclists, we find ourselves in somewhat of an unnatural position on the bike, and as a result, without a strong trunk (core), we can potentially lead ourselves down a road of injury and discomfort. Speaking from experience, for many years I didn’t put enough effort into maintaining strong core. I didn’t step foot in a gym until December 2014, meaning only the last two years of my career I actually did any gym. I am a strong believer in having a well-structured strength program in the pre-season, and carrying it throughout the season, obviously less frequently. Personally, throughout the season I believe you can get almost all you need from yoga, with a strong focus on the exercises that will benefit the needs of a cyclist.
In my last year of professional racing, I adopted a 15-minute core work out which I did every morning before I went out training. Some mornings were purely activation and losing up with some simple yoga poses. I honestly can say it made a difference, and thanks to a good pre-season gym program, I had a great season in 2016.
Below are my top core training tips to having a better experience on the bike. We all want to be able to ride hours on end without having to deal with back pain. All you need to do is invest 15-20 minutes of your time 3-4 times a week to feel the difference.
The first step in forming a strong trunk (core) is to first learn how to activate/engage your transverse abdominals, the deepest of the abdominal muscles. The TrA wraps around the abdomen, between the lower ribs and the top of the pelvis. The function of the TrA is to prepare the lower thorax (chest), back and pelvis BEFORE movement of the arms and/or legs occurs, or loads are increased through the trunk (Diane Lee). In the words of Diane, “training comes before strengthening”. When we learn to engage (train) these muscles properly, we can help to prevent the wear and tear that comes with overuse of the joints in your back and pelvis. As mentioned before, as cyclists, we sit in a very unnatural position for hours on end, shortening the psoas, the muscle which connects the lower and upper body. According to a study by… 85% of cyclists have anterior pelvic tilt which is caused by tightened psoas and hip flexors. This causes the front of the pelvis to tilt forward, and the back of the pelvis rises. The result? An increases curvature of the lower back (spine) upper back (rounded shoulders), which thus leads to weaker glutes and core.
Quite often, people just assume doing sit ups, planks, Russian twists and various other ‘ab’ exercises will lead to a strong core. Whilst you may end up with a nice looking six pack, unless you learn train the deep muscles of your core, that six pack of yours will prove quite useless when you’re on the bike and still having lower back pain.
The tricky thing about the TrA is that a muscle cannot strengthen if the brain cannot activate it. Step one in having a strong core is learning to find the muscles, and then activate them. Below is one of the best short videos on how to activate your TrA correctly, either in the supine position (lying on the floor), or 4 point (table top position).
Ok, so now that you have been working at activating your TrA 3-4 mornings or evenings per week, you are ready to get stuck in to some core strengthening exercises. When you think about core strength, I don’t want you to just think about nice looking abs, but rather the functionality of the core, and its importance in day to day life, not just cycling 😉 This includes strengthening the muscles in our lower back, so I have included a couple of exercises to help you with getting those muscles strong!
Below each exercise is a youtube link so you can follow along step by step. Remember! Before starting these exercises, ensure that you have properly warmed up, activated your TrA, and don’t rush through the exercises. Core strength training should not be about time. Go on feeling. If you’re feeling it in your lower back, then you need to modify the exercise, or perhaps you’re not ready for such a level (just yet!).
Click on each heading to head to a short YouTube video on how to do the exercise the right way.
Often referred to as “birdman” exercise, this exercise helps to strengthen the core, as well as the hips. Starting in the position, hands and knees. You want your shoulders above your hands, and your knees below hips. Then you extend one leg behind you, pulling your core in, lifting the hip up, as far as you are able to without arching or twisting your back. You should envision a bar across the top of your lower back, and this bar needs to remain stable. As you extend the one leg behind you, you begin to reach out with the opposite hand, keeping tension through your arm and upper back.
Lying on a yoga mat on you back, begin to engage your TA (transverse abdominal muscles). Once engaged, lift your head, neck and shoulders slightly above the mat. Bring your knees to ‘table top’ position. Then begin to reach your opposite shoulder to opposite knee in a twist. Remember to protect your neck. The legs should be moving in a ‘bicycle’ action.
Lying down on your back. Hands by your side, remember to relax your head and neck. Things to avoid during this exercise, is pressure on the chest and shoulder area. Engage your TA (transverse abdominals), and slowly begin to lift your legs from the ground towards your head. This is an advanced exercise. If you feel any lower back pain, then please refer to the next exercise.
This is one of the best core exercises that works your whole trunk, and upper body, and is accessible to almost everyone. Starting on your forearms and knees, begin to engage your TA. Once engaged, lift your knees from the mat, creating length in the spine. Your tummy should be tucked, and your back should be nice and flat. As soon as you begin to round your back, or lower your stomach towards the mat, causing a curve in your back, you need to rest you knees back on the mat and reset.
Starting in an upright position on your yoga mat, begin to bring your knees towards your chest, roll your shoulders back, keeping your back strong, begin to slowly lift your legs from the mat. Inhale and bring your legs to table top position. Ensure your back is nice and flat, shoulders rounded back, tummy tucked.
Health and Wellness Coach