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Pilates Cross-Training for Cyclists

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Updated June 18, 2014

Woman indoor cycling
Amana Productions Ltd./Getty Images

Road cycling and indoor cycling have become increasingly popular in today's exercise culture. Pilates practitioners can certainly take a cue from some of the sheer grit and determination exhibited while cycling but pedal lovers take note: Pilates may be just the thing you need to take your metrics to the next level.

In a recent cycling class I was struck by how much Pilates lingo the instructor used. Signature Pilates cues like "navel to spine" and keep your "spine in neutral" have become all the rage with instructors across all fitness disciplines.  If you haven't had the opportunity to really experience what is is these instructors are asking you to do, you're missing out. What follows is a quick explanation of four Pilates cross-training elements that may just give you the edge on race day. Not racing? No worries, these concepts and techniques will play out just as well on the stationary bike.

1. Neutral spine

If I had a nickel for each time I heard a non-Pilates teacher say Neutral spine......

Here's the quick and dirty.  Your spine has natural curves. It can bend and twist but for optimal function, the spine should remain in a position where the natural curves are preserved.  When you're rounded over the handle bars with your knees pulled up high, you'll organically fall into a rounded lower back which reverses the natural curve. It's not that you can't do it - it's that exercising this way repetitively makes you vulnerable to strains, sprains and overuse injuries as well as some more serious conditions like herniated discs. 

To maintain a neutral spine requires you to keep your lower or lumbar spine in some degree of extension with the top of your pelvis tilted forward or anteriorly. To do this, you want to sit pretty far back on your seat and stick your bottom out a bit.  If it feels like your Abdominals are falling out in this position - it's probably because you aren't using any Abdominal support - or haven't learned how to in a Pilates class. Yet.

2. Abdominal support

So how do I keep my spine in neutral and my Abs supported? It's not a new idea to support your Abs during exercise.  In cycling, abdominal support can be tricky.   Pulling your Abs inward can cause you to overly contract those trunk flexor muscles and pull your pelvis into a tucked or tilted position which is the opposite of an optimal neutral spine for riding.  Pilates training focuses on helping you find the contraction in your Abs without necessarily pulling your spine into a rounded position. Practice lifting your abs in and up but keeping them soft rather than hardening them. That provides the support you need to keep your spine in check.

3. Coordination

Road cycling comes pretty naturally to most people but if you mount a stationary bike in a group class you may be asked to coordinate your upper body with your lower body to execute a series of arm exercises or stretches, all done while pedaling. Enter Pilates.  A standard Pilates lesson or group class will train your brain to fire your muscles in many complicated ways making those complex motor combinations on the bike seem like a walk in the park.

4. Breathing

"Calm your breathing". Any cycling instructor worth their salt will cue you to breathe better, calmer, and more evenly.  But did you know that there are a slew of breathing techniques to help you become a more efficient breather?  Better posture and the ability to distinguish between apical breathing (which happens up high in your chest and shoulder area) and diaphragmatic breathing (which happens low at the belly) and lateral breathing (which happens lower and wider )will make those cues much more effective after you've learned how to master this in Pilates class. Yet another favorite Pilates technique, Lateral breathing will teach you to expand your ribcage sideways and thereby your lungs for deeper fuller inhalations, something you'll really appreciate during that last hill.

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There are many ways to become a better, faster and more comfortable rider. The elements of Pilates are so specific that they can be translated perfectly to cycling With a bit of Pilates training, you may find yourself coasting right out of the studio and onto the bike. Or vice-versa. 

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