Keeping a bicycle balanced and rolling puts stress and strain on the body. But riders can prepare, and recover, with the right exercises.
As more people use bikes to commute, to exercise and to socialize, they may find themselves with aches and pains that were considered par for the course when riding was occasional but can nag and discourage when it's counted on as transportation or recreation.
From 2000 to 2013, the number of U.S. bike commuters grew by about 60 percent, according to the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group. From 1999 to 2009, the number of U.S. bicycle trips jumped from 1.8 billion to 4 billion per year, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which also found in 2012 that the average length of a bicycle trip was slightly more than an hour.
Biking, like running, is good aerobic exercise, said Bob Oppliger, a retired exercise science researcher at the University of Iowa, and it has the advantage of causing less stress on the joints.
"Physical activity in and of itself is good," he said. "Biking is particularly good for those who are overweight," but the static position of cycling can cost the body in lost strength and flexibility.
Hunching over handlebars while perched on a narrow seat, pedaling constantly and holding up the head to watch the road take a toll on muscles from the neck to the feet, the spine and back.
Getting a bike that fits the rider's frame and range of motion is important, but so is developing habits to restore the body after a strenuous workout and to build endurance for the next one.
'Stripped down' poses
Uma Kleppinger, who was a competitive cyclist and now is taking up BMX racing as she's about to turn 49, believes yoga adapted for the particular repetitive strains of cycling can keep riding fun and healthful.
"I wanted to help cyclists get to the heart of what's beneficial to them," said Kleppinger, of Portland, Ore. Her book "BikeYoga" offers a number of what she calls "stripped down" poses that if practiced consistently can cultivate flexibility and strength.
It's not yoga "for already bendy women," she said, although some movements are similar to those in other forms of yoga. The poses are intended to counter the shortening and tightness in muscles and tendons that come with cycling and can cause discomfort, poor posture and shortness of breath.
"You're sitting while cycling," she said, "the worst possible position for the human body. Stress gets stored, and those areas need to be opened up. The hips, lower back, shoulders and neck — the core strength brings it all together."
The locust pose, for example, in which the chest and legs are lifted simultaneously, strengthens the back and tones the abdomen. Kleppinger says the sphinx, a kind of back bend with legs outstretched and arms flat with elbows under shoulders, helps keep the spine strong and flexible and boosts the nervous system.
The plank, in which the body is supported on straightened arms and toes, is good for the core, arms and legs. The camel pose, where the body leans backward over bent legs and straight arms with fingers nearly touching toes on the floor, is particularly good to counter hunching.
Debbie Russo, who owns NEXT Yoga studio in Wheaton, Ill., and works with athletes of all ages and abilities, sees yoga as having an overall beneficial effect on the minds of cyclists as well as their bodies.
"Yoga increases strength, flexibility, focus and balance and can prevent injuries," said Russo, who stumbled into a yoga class about 13 years ago in an ongoing quest to find some way to feel better as she struggled with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammation of the bowel.
Flexibility and focus
Yoga works to lengthen the hip flexors for more fluid movement in pedaling and to lessen lower back pain, and it stretches the spine to combat rounding of the shoulders and tightness in the neck, she said. She added that the emphasis on deep breathing and meditation helps with focus.
"It calms the central nervous system and lets you laser-focus when needed, like when you're close to another cyclist or about to turn a sharp corner," Russo said.
Practicing yoga "can prevent injury if you know what your body feels like on a good day. That awareness may get you to back off," if the strain from cycling is too intense, she said.
Russo, like Kleppinger, believes the maximum benefit from yoga comes when a ride is over. A little stretching before is good so the muscles are not too tight, Russo said, but after being hunched over for a period of time, "it's uber-important to lengthen the spine and muscles for future rides."
Kleppinger agrees. She said doing yoga "after makes a whole lot of sense because tissues are flush and saturated and ready to stretch." She suggests about 20 minutes of targeted poses after a ride and more general movements any time of day to counter the sedentary nature of many jobs and activities.
The value of stretching is hard to quantify, Oppliger said, but the very nature of cycling causes parts of the body to fatigue.
"It's probably more a feel-good type of deal," he said. "Any way we can think of to reduce stress is valuable."