If you follow me on Instagram, you likely saw that I was in Moab recently grinding it out on the trails with my mountain bike (don’t tell my Orbea). I had an incredible time out there, but riding a hardtail over 60 miles of slickrock did a number to my low back. Fortunately, I’m a yoga teacher, so I knew just what to do to relieve the pain and stiffness in this common problem area for cyclists (and most of the population, for that matter).  No pills required.

Low back pain, which I will discuss often on this site, can arise for many reasons, including poor bike fit, a lack of flexibility (especially in the hips and hamstrings), weak core muscles, bad posture on and off the bike, anatomical imbalances, injury and more. Prolonged flexion of the spine (i.e. hunching over your handlebars) compresses the vertebrae and creates tension in the surrounding muscles and connective tissue. Practicing yoga consistently, especially the poses listed below, will greatly increase your comfort on the bike, not to mention improve your form and reduce stress.

While there are lots of great yoga poses from various styles of yoga that can target low back pain, I often employ the poses and methodology from a style of yoga called “Yin” Yoga to reduce tension and recover from excursions that are particularly hard on the body.

There are many science-based reasons that yoga, particularly Yin, can benefit the low back of an athlete (which I will discuss in-depth in a later post). The important thing to know for now is that Yin targets the connective tissues (e.g. fascia, tendons, and ligaments) rather than the muscles. Most vigorous, fast-paced styles of yoga like vinyasa or power yoga create strength and length in the muscles, which is great, but won’t necessarily facilitate recovery or relieve aches if the issue is fascia related, which it often is.

Fascia, or the “webbing” of connective tissue that holds together our muscles and organs, is a highly complex tissue that is often ignored when trying to treat aches and pains, especially in the low back. Fascia has many important purposes in the body (again, more on that to come in a future post), and has a much higher density of sensory nerve receptors than muscle does (1), meaning that it is more sensitive to pain. Fascia can also contract (due to the presence of contractile cells) under certain conditions such as stress or injury (2).

As I mentioned, Yin Yoga exercises connective tissues like fascia and is not so much about stretching muscle. This style of yoga is thought to release the contraction of fascia, strengthen connective tissue, and improve flexibility and range of motion. This should be the goal of any cyclist trying to address low back pain, which is why I love it so much.

The following yoga poses are ideal if you want to help your low back bounce back from a hard ride. These poses accomplish this by stretching and reducing tension in the muscles and connective tissues around the spine, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which will reduce inflammation and release tension).

Before you practice:

Because we are focusing connective tissue, it is important to relax the surrounding muscles, especially the muscles that don’t support the shape of the pose (i.e. why are you still clenching your jaw??). This requires holding poses longer, for 3-5 minutes, which can make it harder to stay present if you are used to faster-paced classes or just new to yoga in general. If your mind can’t stop drifting to the sweet cycling kit you saw on Pinterest or the burrito waiting for you in the fridge, I suggest counting or visualizing each inhale and exhale as you hold. It gets easier the more you practice.

Always check with your doctor first before trying yoga or any exercise program. Do not attempt if you have severe, acute or chronic pain or any type of injury.

1. Butterfly Pose
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Cyclist benefits: This pose is a juicy low back opener and is great for cyclists compared to other folds because it doesn’t require loose hamstrings, which none of us cyclists have.

How to get into the pose:

  • Sit in a comfortable position and then bring the soles of your feet to touch.
  • Slide your feet away from you (towards the top of your mat) as far as feels comfortable on your hamstrings, hips and inner thighs.
  • Start to fold forward, flexing (rounding) through the spine. Allow your head to release downward towards your feet.
  • Rest your hands by your sides or wherever feels comfortable.
  • Rest here for 3-5 minutes. Come out of the pose if you feel pain, but it is okay to feel discomfort. Discomfort typically sets in the longer you hold.
  • When you are ready to leave the pose, do so very slowly and carefully by first rolling back up to a neutral spine and then extending your legs forward.

Notes and options:

  • Bring a block under your head so that you can let go of the muscles holding you up and drop deeper into the pose (see photo).
  • Sit on a blanket or piece of foam to elevate the hips slightly about your knees if you have too much rounding or discomfort in the lower back.
2. Supported Bridge PosePicture
Cyclist benefits: This pose is a gentle backbend (opposite of butterfly pose) and works to lengthen the spine and reduce tension and compression in the lower (lumbar) vertebrae. It also works to open up the frontline of the body which counteracts all of the rounding of the shoulders and upper back we do on our bicycles. It is also particularly good for relieving stress and strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system, which is extremely important for recovery from training. One of my favorites.

How to get into the pose:

  • Lying on your back, walk your feet toward your hips so your knees eventually stack over your ankles.
  • Place your feet hips width distance apart.
  • Lift your hips and place a block underneath your sacrum – the lowest part of your spine just above the tailbone. The long side of your block will be parallel to the top and bottom of your mat.
  • Allow your sacrum to rest on the block. It should feel supported and comfortable with no pain.
  • Breathe and hold for 3-5 minutes.
  • To come out of the pose, lift your hips towards the sky and remove the block. Carefully lower your spine back down to the mat.

Notes and options: If you don’t feel anything, place a second block on top of the first block so that your hips are lifted even higher.

3. Sphinx Pose
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Cyclist benefits: Sphinx is a pose that deeply compresses the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum, which, when done correctly, strengthens spinal muscles and promotes a healthy spine (as long as you have no injury or other limitation). The type of vertebral compression created in this pose (posterior compression of disks) counteracts the compression that occurs while you ride (anterior compression of disks). It also counteracts the rounding we do on our bikes by opening the chest and shoulders. Finally, this pose lengthens respiratory muscles that get constricted during a bike ride, making it easier to breathe.

How to get into the pose:

  • Lie on your belly, legs about hip width distance apart and the tops of your feet flat on the mat.
  • Reach for opposite elbows with your hands and slide your elbows toward the top of your mat.
  • Hold for up to 5 minutes.
  • Do not do this pose if you have any pain in your low back before or during this pose.
  • Come out of this pose by lowering your chest to the ground and releasing your arms by your sides.

Notes and options:

  • Slide your elbows back toward your shoulders to deepen the compression. Eventually, elbows may stack directly under your shoulders.
  • Bend your knees by pulling your heels toward your glutes or spread your legs wider to increase compression in the spine.
  • Forearms can be parallel to the long edges of your mat, which will externally rotate the arms (not shown).
  • Place a block underneath your forehead to allow your head to rest and take strain off of your neck and shoulders.
4. Supine Twist
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 Cyclist benefits: Twisting is a great thing to do at the end of a practice because it calms the nervous system and releases tension in the lower back. As you should already know by now, that translates to recovery. When your back is aching from a long ride, this pose does wonders.
Getting into the pose:

  • Lie on your back and pull your knees toward your chest so that they stack over your hips.
  • Extend your arms by your sides, perpendicular to your torso.
  • Let your knees fall to the left side of your mat so that your right knee is stacked on top of your left. Keep both shoulder connected to the mat as you twist.
  • Breathe and hold for 3-5 minutes. Move out of the pose if you have any pain.
  • When you are ready to come out of the pose, engage your core (to protect your back) and roll your knees back over your hips. Allow them to fall to the right and repeat on the opposite side.

Notes and options:

  • The closer you bring your knees to your chest, the more the twist will target the upper back. Lower knees away from the chest will target the lower back more.
  • If your knees don’t touch the ground, you want less sensation in your back or you have any low back discomfort, place a block between your thighs or underneath your bottom knee.
  • There are several variations of this twist that can deepen the pose. One is to keep the bottom leg straight and the top knee bent at 90 degrees.
  • If your arms start to go numb or tingle, let your arms drop down by your sides so that they rest by your torso.

Try these poses out and let me know what you think. Remember, consistent practice is what leads to results!

And of course, contact me if you would like to work with me 1 on 1 to learn more about these and other poses that can help you feel better on and off of your bike.

Namaste y’all,

Meredith

  1. Van Der Wal, J. (2009)  The Architecture of the Connective Tissue in the Musculoskeletal System—An Often Overlooked Functional Parameter as to Proprioception in the Locomotor Apparatus. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2(4): 9–23.
  2. Schleip, R., Klingler, W., Lehmann-Horn, F. (2005) Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able to contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics. Medical Hypotheses. 65:273-277.