Cyclists are always searching for ways to improve their performance through marginal gains. We get bike fits, do interval training, add carbon and titanium, cut weight, upgrade equipment, add more carbon, follow strict nutrition plans all in an attempt to gain a few grams/watts/seconds. But what most cyclists overlook are the benefits that can be gained from within ourselves, with a stronger body... especially our core.
Every week on one regular morning ride I see a particular rider who waivers with every pedal stroke... then rides straight when he stops pedaling. Why? because he doesn't have a strong core and with each down stroke his legs do not have a strong platform to push against. So what happens? The legs push against the weak core which translates all the way back to the handlebars.
How many times have you seen riders struggle with the ability to hold their line?
It’s not difficult with two hands on your handlebars but what about when you are reaching for a drink bottle or looking behind you? Even experienced riders sometimes struggle to stay straight when they have only one hand on the bars.
The problem often lies in your core strength and flexibility, rather than experience on the bike.
Lets start by calling out what Pilates is not
Pilates is not yoga.
While there are some similarities with yoga and Joseph Pilates was a practitioner of yoga, there are key differences in the way the body is used. Yoga is mostly practiced in a series of static poses and breathing techniques whereas Pilates has more of a dynamic nature.
What Pilates is
The Pilates Method (Pilates) was developed by Joseph Pilates with the aim of balancing the body and promoting functional movement by optimising strength, flexibility and mobility.
The key to Pilates is the proper alignment of the pelvis with each dynamic movement designed to strengthen the body’s core, improve flexibility and mobility of the spine and joints.
Pilates exercises are performed with the core muscles engaged. The core muscles are the deep muscles which support your trunk and not your abdominal muscles which is the common misconception.
How Pilates will help you become a better cyclist
Pilates targets the core muscles that help stabilise the rider on the bike by keeping the spine in a stable position. By improving your core strength, you can increase your power output and improve balance and handling.
Pilates is about strength, flexibility and alignment of the body by focusing on the core muscle groups. In cycling there is a lot of repetitive movement of isolated areas which results in an uneven muscle development. Although we often have highly-developed leg muscles, cyclists tend to have very under-developed upper bodies partly due the "race weight" mentality where we try to not to carry any excess weight or build muscle where we don't need it. Most cyclists think of upper body conditioning as gym work which adds unwanted bulk.
This is where the problem arises, we think we don't need it but actually we do!
This problem becomes particularly apparent when fatigue sets in as neck muscles get tight from looking forward and shoulder and back muscles get sore from holding the same position for hours on end.
Cyclists' often develop short hip flexors and an imbalance in their hip extensor muscles caused by being hunched forward over the bike, which can then put stress on the lower back and the knees.
Pilates addresses this very with specific flexibility and strengthening exercises which improves muscle strength without increasing bulk or adding weight, allowing cyclists to improve their power to weight ratio (watts/Kg). It helps stabilise the pelvis which provides a stable base for power generation. It doesn’t work on individual muscle strength but improves your motor control and coordination of movement. The core is essentially made up of endurance / postural muscles of which cyclists need to be efficient in their power transfer to the pedals.
For competitive cyclists, increased flexibility and core strength allows for more power and greater efficiency.
For the time trialists, the increased flexibility and core strength allows for a more streamlined longer and lower riding position thereby reducing drag.
For the rest of us, the increased flexibility and core strength allows us to ride stronger for longer while allowing for bursts of speed all while holding a steady line.
Common postural problems of cyclists:
Pilates will benefit cyclists with:
It is easy to spot a tired cyclist, as fatigue sets in they become less and less efficient, their bodies will start to rock from side to side, their chest drops so that the neck has bend to hold the head up and all their weight falls onto the front of the bike.
In contrast, riders who are still moving efficiently will be pedaling smoothly while their head, shoulders and body remain still and steady.
The longer a cyclist is able to maintain good form on the bike, the more efficiently they will use their energy, the further and faster they can go with more reserve in the tank when they need it to break away, bridge a gap or sprint for the line.
What does a strong core do for a cyclist anyway?
Core strength which helps support the lower back which is the first area that fatigues on a long ride or time trial.
Core strength also helps transfer more power to the pedals by providing a solid platform for the lower body to push against.
Pilates exercises are targeted to develop strength in the deep core muscles of the abdomen and spine, taking pressure off the weaker muscles and promoting more balanced and efficient use.
Professional cyclists need to maintain their form while moving their body efficiently for hours every day. They need to reduce energy expenditure and improve their performance by increasing their cycling time before muscle fatigue sets in with enough in reserve for a burst of power to break for the finish line.
Reasons to incorporate Pilates into your training program
Pilates increases Strength and Power
With core strength and flexibility, you are able to produce a powerful and efficient pedal stroke. Pilates will also develop Thoracic core stability to ensure you are able to maintain your posture for long periods of time preventing neck and back strain.
Pilates increases Flexibility
Pilates increases flexibility by controlling your muscles through the full range of motion while stabilizing the core.
Spine flexibility is key for preventing neck and back problems, improving breathing, and increasing cycling time.
Flexibility through your other joints will even out your pedal stroke.
How will I fit Pilates into my training schedule?
I use the days when I’m taking a day off the bike for Pilates.
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