Balance of Power (and Flexibility): Yoga for Endurance Athletes

By Melinda Macfarlane with Mark Deterline – 

Assistant Editor’s intro: In 2013, her first year of more structured training and active competing, Melinda built cycling and endurance fitness upon a foundation comprised largely of years of dedicated yoga. She flew up through the ranks to become one of Utah’s top female racers, while balancing racing with a supportive hubby, two young daughters and work.

Following several road race victories, including a state championship title, and on much less massive-mileage training than most, she pulled off her most impressive feat of the year: in 9:35, she not only accomplished her main competitive objective of 2013 by winning Logan to Jackson (LOTOJA) in the elite women’s division, she set the women’s course record in that grueling race covering more than 200 miles.

Monuments of achievement like that are built upon a firm foundation, and that is what yoga and cross-training mean to many successful endurance athletes.

* * *

Let’s be honest, cyclists are not generally known for their willingness to cross-train. One can tell by the – how do I put this delicately – oft lack of muscle definition in their arms that upper body conditioning is not high on their list of priorities. A personal example is the multitude of questions I get after posting photos from a run or hike: “Is your bike broken?”

Yoga instructor, bike racer and XC/DH ski enthusiast Melissa Snow demonstrates “Vasistasana” side planking in Malibu. Melissa teaches beginner to advanced classes, and will write next issue’s yoga column. Photo by Robert Sturman, robertsturmanstudio.com.

In my opinion, cycling is one of the most fun activities in which a person can participate recreationally, as a form of exercise and as a competitive sport. It makes total sense that when I have any precious free time, my first instinct is to spend more time on my bike than to cross-train because one, I want to become a stronger and faster cyclist, but two, I just really enjoy it!

I had been both practicing and teaching yoga for years before I found cycling, so I am embarrassed to admit this, but my personal yoga completely fell by the wayside when I started cycling competitively. My excuse? “I don’t have time to do both; every spare second I have needs to be spent on the bike.” My coach even tried to teach me the importance of cross-training very early on in my cycling obsession, but I wouldn’t listen until I started having nagging pains, as well as overuse injuries.

I knew better! I am a yoga instructor, for heaven’s sake. But I still allowed my obsession with the bike get the best of me. Don’t let that happen to you…

I love yoga because it strengthens in ways nothing else does, the breath work does wonders for your cardio, and the meditative and emotional benefits are profound. Most of all, I love yoga because it keeps me injury and pain free. While all of these benefits are sublime, they often prove insufficient in motivating hardcore cyclists to make time for yoga. But perhaps this reality check will: in my experience, the only thing other than a bike fit by a trained, experienced and truly gifted bike fitter will keep you as pain and injury free as yoga.

So, I ask you to consider the following questions carefully. Do you love to ride your bike? Do you want to be able to ride your bike well into your later years? Then do yoga.

Of course I want to encourage everyone to attend classes, although realistically, many of us just won’t make the time. So, I’ll share some poses I know to be important and effective; there are plenty of videos and photos online to help you learn how to master these. Also, more and more instructors are streaming live classes that anyone with an internet connection can follow in real-time.

Downward Dog. Start with your knees sufficiently bent so that it's NOT about the hamstrings, at first. Allowing the right bend in the knees will release your lower back. Reach your sit bones skyward by slightly arching your lower back. Then as you warm up, gently work your heels toward the floor, slowly straightening your legs so that you start to feel your hamstrings. Your legs may never get completely strait and your heels may never touch the floor. If you feel your hamstrings releasing, that is all that matters.

High or Crescent Lunge. Great for your hip flexors. Play around with reaching back through the heel to also release your calves.

High Lunge Twist. From the pose above, put your hands in prayer position at your chest, then take one elbow to the opposite knee. If that proves too intense, just take one hand to the floor and the other skyward in a twist. Riding bikes, our backs get so tight! This is a great release for your entire back, not to mention what it’s doing for your legs.

Modified Bridge. This strengthens the back and opens the front of the body, which is important after being on a bike.

Pigeon. Stretches hips and glutes. Remember, pinpoint pain is never OK! Lots of people overstretch the knees in this pose, and that is NOT GOOD. Sensation – even intense sensation – is ok, but sharp, pinpoint pain never is. If this proves too intense, lie on your back, take one foot to the top of the opposite thigh, essentially accomplishing the same thing. Even better, turn it into a balance pose by standing on one leg, taking the opposite foot on top of the standing leg’s thigh, and bend that leg into a squat. So, if you’re standing on your left leg, the right foot is on top of the left thigh, with the right knee over to the right. Deep bend with the left leg, butt back, weight in left heel.

Dancer Pose. This one is intense and probably too much for most who are less experienced, although it’s great for balance, and we MUST find a way to release our quads. If Dancer is too much, just balance on one leg, pulling the foot toward the glute of the leg you are not standing on. Not many poses in yoga release quads sufficiently for cyclists, in my opinion, so make sure to master the poses that do, and plan on looking into other ways for you to get that essential release.

IT Band Forward Fold. Way too many of us suffer from pain on the outside of the knee. While the following isn’t really an official yoga pose, as far as I’m aware, I include it in almost every one of my yoga classes because our IT Bands can get so tight. Cross one leg in front of the other and fold forward. Simple as that.

Forearm plank. Core strength is so important, and this is a good way to not only feel the core, but really to strengthen the entire body.

Mindy McCutcheon uses yoga as a key part of her training. She is shown here in Warrior pose. Photo courtesy Mindy McCutcheon

If you can get to a yoga class, please do. All of this will make much more sense if you work with an instructor. Start with a beginner’s class as soon as you can find one that fits into your schedule. We all know that the surest way to dislike something, even something potentially rewarding and gratifying, is to try to do too much, too soon, especially if it’s beyond our current level of competence. If initial classes are too demanding, you could get discouraged — and much worse, you could get injured.

If you don’t feel capable of committing to a class or even to a video, just do something safe and effective to help release all of the tension that cycling can cause, and work to heal the overuse damage we sometimes do. From there, we begin to build ourselves back up, as opposed to potentially breaking ourselves down. As we invest in our bodies and ourselves in this positive way, and as the tension dissipates and our strength increases, we get what we healthfully and ultimately want:

More functional power, more endurance, more comfort and more speed.

Melinda Macfarlane’s athletic bio from her coach’s perspective: Melinda is a longtime yoga instructor and cross-training devotee, which served her extremely well as a burgeoning bike racer. Her foundation of yoga, (trail) running, hiking, etc. catapulted her up through the ranks to complete a whirlwind 2yr racing career as a two-time State Road Race Champion, fastest ever women’s finisher at LOTOJA, along with numerous podiums and medals. What impressed me most about Melinda was her willingness to face her fears regarding the dangers of bike racing and insecurities around whether she could really do it. And she did it.

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One Response to "Balance of Power (and Flexibility): Yoga for Endurance Athletes"

  1. Matthew Gibble   November 13, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Great article. As a massage therapist I see so many endurance athletes that forego mobility, core and strengthening work that would give them tremendous gains in their sport of choice.

    I rode LOTOJA as well, in 2007 and my core base work was yoga but alas, I, too abandoned it for more miles as I got close to the event.

    A few years ago I switched to trail running and incorporated yoga into my training plan at a minimum of 3x weekly. That year it made a huge difference in doing a 40 mile trail ultra and then R2R2R in November, even missing two weeks of training three weeks out due to a staph infection.

    In short, yoga is the perfect orthopedic balance in the body and I couldn’t imagine life without yoga. Thanks for the article.

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