Ever thought about what else, aside from riding you should be doing during the offseason? You probably have and likely considered lifting weights or a secondary sport like running or swimming. But many of us simply switch bikes and stick to riding. What else could we be doing that would improve our ‘cross racing both physically and mentally? Chris Mayhew makes the case for yoga in this week’s Training Tuesday.
The surest sign of offseason is on-line arguments about whether or not cyclists should lift weights. It was happening on the rec.bicycles.racing board in 1990 and continues on Wattage in 2016. I’m not going to pretend that I can settle the issue or bring something new to the table. My opinion is that you, as a cyclocross racer (or mountain biker or gravel grinder) should be doing something strength related off the bike.
But let me make the case for doing yoga, or some kind of movement practice, instead of weight lifting.
If you’re looking for weight lifting advice I’d tell you to Google Selene Yeager as she’s covered that ground pretty thoroughly. Hopefully though I can convince you to incorporate yoga into your training and if not today, as my yoga instructor says, “tomorrow.”
So why not weight lifting or some other high resistance form of strength training? The reasons are both physical and mental.
The forces involved in pedaling are relatively small compared with the forces involved in traditional weight lifting and don’t require much strength at all. The challenge is the metabolic demands of applying that force 40-120 time per minute for long periods of time. Lifting heavy weights won’t help with that. And a good part of the gains of weight lifting are neuromuscular. Like we’ll talk about later, “the neurons that fire together wire together.” So even if you get big and strong, it is not going to transfer to pedaling a bike, because it involves a different muscle recruitment pattern than weight lifting, even if the motion appears similar. And, if you have lifted before, you know it’s hard to recover from and may compromise on bike workouts for 1 to 3 days afterwards.
Mentally, the last thing you as an athlete need is another metric-based activity that you’re trying to ring the bell at or “win.” You’ve only got so much to give in a given day or week. So why spend your time driving to the gym to beat yourself up with weights and perhaps not reach the arbitrary goals you’ve set for yourself? I am a big believer in respecting the recovery day and taking some down time to enable going harder on the days you need to. Or to allow you to spend that cycling energy at home, such as mowing the yard, because goodness knows any cyclist is not going to accomplish that the same day they did an interval session.
As for why yoga, let’s look at first at the physical and then mental benefits. But let me start by defining what I mean when I say yoga.
You’re probably going to want to focus on Hatha yoga and a level 1 or 2 class. Not Bikram or hot yoga, which is going to lead to hydration issues. And probably not Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga, which are going to be quite aerobically demanding. You’re likely already spending 3 to 6 days a week doing something very hard, you don’t need another hard workout. Primarily we’re looking to diagnose and address imbalances from cycling’s constant, fixed repetitive motion.
Doing yoga, you’ll find out in bridge pose if your glutes are weak. Downward dog pose will let you know how tight your hamstrings are. Camel pose will show you just how tight those well developed quads are. At the same time it will strengthen that lower back of yours that takes such a pounding in ‘cross and will, in my experience, let you down as you age if you don’t work on it. Most people work at a desk with back and shoulders rounded in and then move to the bike which is more of the same sub-optimal posture. Yoga will address that and your core will get an amazing workout that will help with the acrobatics involved in ‘cross. Watch this short video of Stephen Hyde for a prime example; zero pedaling, all core and balance.
Now, for what is arguably the bigger benefit: the mental one.
Imagine doing a race and talking positively to yourself the whole time. Being able to calm your breathing and heartrate at will. Making mistakes, acknowledging them and saying “next time,” while not letting them interfere with your flow. Being able to take perceived failures and turn them into positive learning experiences. Being able to visual the course beforehand and envisioning how you’ll perform in certain sections.
Remember what happens to neurons that fire together? You’re practicing all those things I listed above every time you do yoga. And with some time you’ll find you can recreate that mental state at will, under the duress of a race. Not a bad use of your training time for maybe 1 to 2 hours a week, or a tad more if you can work in some 20 minute sessions at home or work. Maybe you can even attend a class with your significant other thus getting in some quality time with them while growing as an athlete.
So yes, I think if you’re racing in the dirt you should probably be doing some form of strengthening exercises. I think there are some drawbacks to weight lifting, specificity and diminished recovery time chief among them. But more importantly I think you can address many physical issues with yoga and also greatly improve your mental game.
Happy racers go faster, to quote Kristin Keim, sports psychologist to many of your favorite ‘crossers. Why not take some time and use a different approach to reach your goals, rather than the usual “I must go harder ’till I suck less” that is so common among bike racers?