What do Ryan Giggs, the New Zealand All Blacks and LeBron James have in common?
They all practise yoga.
Professional sport is embracing yoga as more than just stretching and relaxing. Athletes are turning to yoga to help shorten recovery time between games, speed up healing after injury and boost stamina. Bradley Wiggins uses yoga as part of a training regime aimed at 'keeping the chimp in the cage', as he describes the battle to maintain focus - while Giggs, still playing in the Premier League at the age of 39, has even been quoted as saying yoga is his secret weapon in maintaining such a long professional career.
So what benefits can yoga offer cyclists?
The first benefit is physical. Cyclists spend much of their time hunched forward putting huge strain on their lower backs, shoulders and necks. Tightness in the hamstrings and hips is common. Stretching and warming up helps, but many cyclists still complain of aching shoulders and stiffness after long rides.
Rise with the sun
Where yoga excels over the usual stretch-it-out routine is thoroughness. A simple yoga routine can warm up, strengthen and stretch all the major muscles groups before you've even started targeting anything specific. 'Sun Salutations' are a great place to start with. This sequence of 12 or so inter-linked foundational yoga poses works to stretch out the whole body, front and back, and once learned is very easy to perform at home.
Afraid that you have to pick between strength and flexibility? Practising yoga regularly encourages long, lean muscle while developing flexibility, crucial to a cyclist's ability to tuck into low, aerodynamic positions for long periods of time.
Core work is also an integral part of most yoga poses, maintaining stability in the body and protecting the lower back from strain, important points to consider for long, intense rides. Good core strength also helps you maintain a smooth, steady pedalling position on the bike, avoiding wasted energy from rocking side to side.
Remember to breathe
Breath-work is another huge element of yoga. Considered an entire path of yoga in itself, breath-work focuses on creating physical and mental calmness by controlling and manipulating the breath. As well as the relaxing and calming effects, athletes have found this incredibly useful on maintaining even, controlled breath during prolonged or intense training. This is even more important to cyclists as their position on the bike restricts the lungs and diaphragm and reduces how much air they can take in.
If all these benefits sound too good to pass up, the good news is that getting started with yoga couldn't be easier. Yoga studios have become the norm in most cities and towns, and even if you can't make it to a class in person, the internet is an amazing resource for practising at home.
I always recommend starting with Hatha yoga (a style of yoga that concentrates on strength and flexibility) before branching out into any of the more flowing or fast-paced styles such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa.
Find your local
If possible, try to attend a few classes in person before practising at home alone. This gives you a chance to properly learn each posture with a qualified teacher who can modify things to suit your body's specific needs (and each body is unique!).
This also gives you an opportunity to pick your teacher's brain about poses or techniques that might benefit your particular issues. That's what yoga teachers are there for - don't be afraid to tell them why you ended up in their class and that you're a cyclist looking for the best way to cross-train for your body.
Online yoga classrooms are also starting to cater specifically to the athlete-turned-yogi. One in particular, YogaGlo, has an entire section dedicated to yoga for cyclists with classes ranging from 5 minutes up to a full 60 minute class and targeting everything from shortening recovery time to supporting your knees. They also offer a 15-day free trial for new members, so you've nothing to lose - except perhaps a few seconds shaved off the time of your next ride.
Other great yoga resources include:
:: My Yoga Online - yoga video classes offering a huge range of styles and classes for working specific areas or issues.
:: Yoga Journal - online yoga magazine with a comprehensive index of yoga poses, including correct alignment, how to safely perform the pose and benefits.
:: Google - find out where your nearest yoga studio is, and get signed up!