'Praxis'

Beat the Heat and then Some: Yoga for Cyclists

I started out writing this as a ‘short’ post. I failed. Sorry. One thing led to another…. Inspired by the latest VeloNews FastTalk podcast – Ep. 21: How to ride better in the hot hot heat –  I’d like to share some of my experience with riding in hot hot heat, which I hope will help you ride in the heat more comfortably. Yoga figures in this discussion, and I’ll move on to elaborate more benefits practicing yoga can offer you as a cyclist, any beyond.

First, I’d encourage you to listen to the Fast Talk episode. I will build on a few aspects discussed.

Let’s begin by discussing acclimatization to heat. As a rider who used to ride and race downhill in Ontario and Quebec’s hot and humid summer conditions while wearing full body armour and a full-face helmet, I used to get pretty cooked, pretty often. I remember many mountain bike trail rides that saw me struggling with the inability to cool via evaporation, with humidity close to or even at 100%.

The Fast Talk episode discusses a study that tricked test subjects into thinking the hot conditions they were riding in were cooler than they really were. The conditions were in fact the same as another trial run that was accurately communicated as ‘hot’. The test subjects were told they were riding in cooler conditions, matching another trial that was in fact cooler. That was a lie/trick. While the subjects believed they were riding in ‘cool’ conditions, it was in fact ‘hot,’ and their performance ended up mapping onto their other trials in actual cool conditions, not the actual hot condition trials. Essentially, thinking it wasn’t ‘so hot’ meant the subjects regulated their bodies differently and performed the same as if it was, in fact, cool. This suggests that conscious perspective matters when dealing with hot conditions.

Later in the podcast, the panel discusses heat acclimatization in saunas, which is something teams like Cannondale-Drapac did in preparation for the Tour Down Under, and Simon Whitfield did in preparation for the Beijing Olympics (albeit, in his heat shed). The panel discusses training in controlled hot conditions to reset your baseline perception of ‘normal.’

This is where I’d like to share my experience, as I think this is a little-known option for acclimatizing to heat: hot yoga.

About 15 years ago, before I had kids, my wife took me to my first hot yoga class. Sitting there in the studio in Ottawa one summer evening, the temperature in the room was hot enough to get my sweat going just sitting there. I was intimidated! I’d done a good amount of yoga to that point, but never like this. My wife, an experienced yogi, told me to dial back my effort to compensate for the heat. But how would I win the class? Kidding, I’ve never done competitive yoga.

That first class was tough, really tough! I had to take a number of moments to just rest and chill out – figuratively! – while the rest of the class continued on. But I survived, clearly, and felt good about the experience. So I went back, and kept doing so regularly for some time, ultimately continuing over the 5 years we lived in Montreal, taking in a hot class every Friday night.

But long before then, I noticed a significant change in how I felt in the heat outside. My baseline tolerance for heat changed, and I never felt ‘hot’ while riding anymore, no matter how slow I was moving. The only time the heat bothered me was when standing in the sun; I hate that! Essentially, I went from being someone who struggled in the heat often to someone who usually fared better than the majority of companions or competitors in rides and races. Incidentally, I also found that I experienced cold weather as warmer following acclimatization from hot yoga. It appears, and there are articles that say the same, that hot yoga helps the body regulate temperate better, so both hot and cold weather are experienced as less severe.

Heat acclimatization – which seems to be permanent after a few years of solid practice, as I rarely find myself in a hot yoga class anymore – isn’t the only benefit to doing hot yoga. The heat helps limber up our muscles and connective tissues, which helps work on poses that might otherwise cause us difficulty. Yes, one can overdo it, but that is the case in all endeavors. For cyclists, there are distinct advantages and benefits to doing yoga, and most apply no matter the temperature of the room.

So, in addition to my primary interest to discuss the benefits of hot yoga for heat acclimatization, here are some other significant of benefits hot yoga offers for cycling.

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Breathing: I used to really struggle with breathing naturally and fluidly when I raced downhill, and this transferred to road riding as I took up that discipline. Some might be surprised to learn that I routinely struggled to avoid hyperventilating on the Pink Lake climb on the Gatineau Parkway. Fact. I obsessed about my breathing and that only made things worse.

Yoga taught me to breath more intentionally, and to focus on the quality of my breath as my first priority when moving through a practice (class or alone). If my breath became ragged, or I held it while attempting a pose or a series of poses, I’d have to dial things back and regain my breathing rhythm. This was a slow process that took years, but I was worth it! I never have breathing rhythm issues anymore, and when things get really hard, I often remember to focus on smooth, calm breathing, which makes the efforts easier. If you struggle with your breathing on your bike, consider trying to focus on this one thing when you go out for a challenging ride. When the riding gets tough, ask yourself: am I breathing deeply and rhythmically? If you’re not, either dial back your effort until you’re back in control, or try to regulate your breathing better at the intensity you’re riding.

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Balance: I’m not sure the majority of people who’ve given any thought to yoga realize how much balancing is required for all disciplines. I became intimately aware of this fact when I returned to my early yoga practice after injuring my knee around 2000. I’d inflicted a great deal of nerve damage, which meant my knee was unstable. Through doing a couple yoga poses at home daily as I recovered, then for a period of years, I was able to regain stability in my knee without undertaking surgery (which I had thought was the only option at one time). Each time I’d reinjure it – which occurred all too often until I shifted focus to drop bar bikes – I’d do nerve damage again and take time to regain the connections between joint and brain through my balancing postures.

There are many other balancing postures in yoga that are not just on our feet. Some, like side planks, are focused on the core, while others, like crow, are mostly focused on the wrists – that one is pretty amazing to learn. Overall, by putting our bodies in positions that are very much unlike our everyday movements, we give ourselves opportunities to grow and reinforce neural connections that effectively ‘smarten’ our bodies. So when we get into trouble on our bikes, and need to take fast action without thinking, we have more tools to work with, more ability to adapt our position and more thoroughly activate our muscles. Think: faster, smarter reflexes.

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Strength: This one is in fact very similar to balance. The deal with the sort of strength we develop through yoga isn’t the same as building muscle mass at the gym. If you look at famous yogis, you’ll see that most are quite wiry, yet have incredible strength to weight ratios. This is accomplished through training their muscles to recruit large amounts of muscle fibre when called upon, rather than relying on a lot of muscle mass. Muscle activation and recruitment is also the name of the game in cycling, as we generally want to be lean and not particularly muscle-bound for climbing hills. But this is somewhat discipline-specific, as the more anaerobic, max-power-based disciplines, such as some of the track disciplines, BMX, and downhill, require more muscle mass to provide explosive power and protect against injury in the case of crashes. However, all those athletes also benefit from the maximum muscle recruitment balancing exercises help with; they just need more muscle overall (usually). Many yoga postures help develop strength by putting us in positions where we need to recruit more muscle than we’re accustomed to.

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Focus: This is huge. When going into a yoga class, it’s always valuable to set an intention for the next hour or whatever duration the class will be. This requires thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish in the class, then, how you’re going to get there. So it’s about developing a strategy, which will be supported by specific tactics. To illustrate, imagine going into a class and setting the following intention: “I want to have a good class.” How will that work out? Probably not so well. The problem with this sort of vague objective is that it’s an outcome goal, not a process goal. It doesn’t tell us anything specific about what we have to focus on throughout the class. Instead, a more effective approach would be to set a process goal; let’s take the example from above: breathing: “I want to maintain steady breathing for the whole class.” This is something concrete that we can hold in our minds from start to finish, and it’s practicable. If breathing gets short or ragged at some point in the class,you can back off a bit, straighten it out, and proceed. By doing this we focus on an aspect of the practice that is a feedback of our exertion, which lets us see when we’re extending beyond our abilities. It’s not about forcing things, but slowly, steadily, iteratively progressing.

The same approach applies in cycling. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and some are basic: breathing. while others are more ‘advanced’: rotating fast in a paceline at high speed. No matter whether we’re doing a training session inside, an easy ride outdoors, or a race, we can always set an intention for ourselves, something key we want to focus on. If it’s a massive challenge ride, like 6 Gaps in Vermont, with 4000+ metres of climbing over 212km, spinning as easy as possible over the day would be an excellent intention to set. By setting this intention, we’d likely avoid falling into the well-worn habit of pushing too hard on climbs; that adds up!

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Flexibility: I leave this one to last, as it’s the aspect of yoga most people seem to think it’s all about. There are indeed significant flexibility gains to be had through yoga practice, but as you can see from above, there are many other aspects of value. The great thing about building flexibly through yoga is that cycling is really bad for our flexibility, so they are very complimentary!

There are two components here (at least). First, body awareness. It’s not specific to working on flexibility, but holding long stretching poses teaches us a lot about paying attention to where we’re clenching. For me, it’s my right shoulder. Whenever I’m under pressure on the bike, my right shoulder wants to creep up toward my ear. I notice here and there, and try to relax. I’ve got an underlying issue there, and this ”twitch’ is telling me that.

The huge one on the bike is hamstring flexibility. How many cyclists haven’t struggled with impacts of tight hamstrings? 2? I don’t know….few, I’m sure. Exacerbating the tight hamstring issue, many of us sit in chairs all day, which allows them to shorten. It also ‘turns off’ some of the nerves in our lower backs, making them ‘dumb.’ When you combine these two elements – tight hamstrings, dumb back – we have the perfect recipe for tweaked backs or at least lower back pain. You know that time you bent over to pick up something small, and your lower back went haywire? That was probably a communication problem that saw some lower back muscles underfire and others overfire. Spasm!

Maintaining limber hamstrings allows us to comfortably ride in aerodynamic positions for long periods of time, should we wish to. I am known to have a low position on the bike, which makes me somewhat of a ‘time trial’ type rider, even though I don’t really bother time trialing much. This isn’t something I have always been able to do well. I’ve worked on my hamstring flexibly through yoga practice for years, and independently at home every night for at least 5 years. This is something I ended up incorporating into my routine under the advisement of my chiropractor, Dr. Martin Zollinger, whom I’ve seen over years for back issues. I’ve steadily improved my hamstring and hip flexibility to the point that I can walk into Re:Form Body Clinic on a Tuesday after a big weekend of riding (like 10+ hours), and be just as well aligned as any other week. While we’re accustomed to flexing our backs forward while riding, many of the back bends in yoga see us bending the other way. This is important for maintaining disc mobility, which is vital to alignment, anf thus, nervous system function. That’s pretty important.

In cyclocross and mountain bike racing, many will have experienced severe lower back pain. Is that about strength? People often think so, and try to compensate by doing a bunch of sit-ups (which can be horrible for your spine!) or other core exercises. Some of that is great, but the leading cause of lower back pain in these cases is tight hamstrings and temperature of the lower back’s fascia. If the hamstrings are tight, they’ll pull on the lower back, leading to pain. If that occurs while the lower back is cold, it’s even worse! To avoid this, try pre-heating your lower back before hard efforts in the cold, using hot water bottles or seat heaters in the car. To manage the issue sustainably, stretch your hamstrings every night. And if you’ve just gotten up from sleep, make sure you warm things up and get your muscles firing before moving around in awkward ways. Muscles ‘turn off’ when we sleep, as they do when we sit.

I hope this post helps at least one of you either try yoga, get back to a practice that has lapsed, or even just incorporate stretching and balancing into a daily routine. I am a firm believer in good chiropractic care, which, when undertaken regularly, helps us maintain good habits and avoid developing dysfunctional movement patterns that will come around to bite us. If we look at cycling from a holistic perspective, there’s a lot we can do off the bike to support today’s ride, tomorrow’s and those we hope to enjoy in the decades to come.

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