As a keen mountain biker and road cyclist using Pilates to help improve cycling performance is an area of particular interest for me. Having trained with APPI the Australian Pilates and Physiotherapy Institute in mat work and reformer Pilates my interest has developed in how Pilates can help the cycling population.
My work as a sports physiotherapist and bike fit specialist has provided me with the opportunity to work with a lot of cyclists over the years. I commonly see cyclists with neck and back pain- sometimes due to a poor bike fit but more often due to poor technique and lack of core control.
When I observe cyclists from behind I am looking for “pelvic drop” – is the rider able to stay nice and level at the pelvis as they pedal or are they rocking from side to side? Sometimes this is a sign that the saddle is too high but it could also be due to a lack of core control and ability to stabilise the pelvis when pressing hard on the pedals. Some riders will drop more to one side than the other – this could be due to a leg length discrepancy and can be helped with adjustments to bike fit, cleats and/or shoes but equally it could be due to control with reduced balance and control on one side of the body.
Pilates exercise to improve Pelvic stability on the bike
4 point kneeling with alternate leg raises
When I look at a cyclist from the side I am looking for a nice neutral, natural position of the spine. Bike fit will play a big part in this – if the rider is too stretched out it will put a lot of extra load on the spine, equally so if the rider is too bunched up. Quite often cyclists want to achieve an aero position on the bike and strive for a more aggressive position to give them an advantage with wind resistance. Unfortunately some riders don’t have the flexibility to achieve these aggressive positions on the bike or the core strength to maintain them for the duration of a ride. This is where hamstring length, ankle and spinal mobility and core strength play a huge role – helping riders achieve and maintain a competitive position on the bike for the duration of a ride or event.
Pilates exercise to improve hamstring length on the bike
Single-leg Bridge with hamstring and sciatic nerve mobilisation
Another common problem is knee pain –Ideally the cyclist should track the knee-cap or “patella” over the second toe or middle of the foot. If the knee is collapsing in – more towards the big toe, then you are thinking the problem is either saddle height or decreased control. This “increased valgus” position of the knee is often due to lack of control at the hip with the glutes not playing their part in stabilising the hip knee and ankle. It can be helped with bike fit with the use of wedges in cleats and / or insoles in shoes but ideally you want to look at the potential to improve core control and glute stability. Wedges and insoles can be a necessary quick fix but in the long run or you may find you are just papering over the cracks and losing out on potential endurance gains.
Pilates exercise to develop hip knee ankle alignment on the bike
Single leg wall squat
Neck pain is another area commonly reported in cyclists. You need to have good neck and shoulder stability to sustain long periods of looking forwards and up on the bike. A common bike fit error is to have the bars too low and / or with too much reach, causing the rider to have to extend the neck further in order to see ahead- this increases the work load and reduces time to fatigue.
The rider can sometimes experience pins and needles in the hands due to too much pressure on the upper limbs – again bike fit is often the culprit with bars being too low and/or with too much reach causing the rider to lock the arms out, putting too much pressure on the hands and causing compression of the ulnar or median nerve. It could also be due to the nose of your saddle pointing down having the effect of shifting your weight onto your hands. Once the fit has been addressed then strengthening the tri-ceps and the “front triangle” of your body is a good way to reduce pressure through the hands. With good tri-cep endurance and a strong front triangle you can sustain soft relaxed elbows throughout your ride reducing pressure on your hands.
Pilates exercise to develop the “front triangle”
4 point plank – reach for the bidon