August 24, 2012

Pilates for cyclists: a lesson in breathing, stretching and pain

If you’d asked me five years ago whether I’d ever do Pilates I’d probably answer with something along the lines of: ‘Probably not. Wait, what’s Pilates again?’ I’d always subconsciously grouped Pilates with other disciplines such as Yoga — disciplines that I knew would probably contribute to better health, but ones I’d never had any desire or motivation to try.

But a few months ago that all changed and I headed along to six hour-long sessions at Relinque Pilates Studio in Ivanhoe.

To say I was able to do this after six weeks would be, ahem, a bit of a stretch. (Image: preerati)

To say I could do this after six weeks would be, ahem, a bit of a stretch. (Image: preerati/Instagram)

Full disclosure: Relinque is part-owned by Tammy van Bergen, the wife of Andy van Bergen of Hells 500 fame and a wonderfully friendly and positive person in her own right. Tammy made me the exceedingly generous offer of six free Pilates sessions to see if we could address the lingering ITB (iliotibial band) troubles I’d been having. It’s worth pointing out that Tammy hasn’t asked me to write this piece, nor do I intend it to be a plug for Relinque. I’m just keen to disclose, up front, why I was there in the first place.

Whem Tammy made her generous offer I, of course, accepted, before quickly getting online to find out what I’d gotten myself into. A cursory glance seemed to suggest Pilates was basically a combination of breathing and stretching. ‘Easy’, I thought. ‘I know how to breathe. And stretching? I did that for years as a cricketer. How hard could it be?!’

Despite my (misplaced) confidence, I went to the first session not really knowing what to expect. Tammy and I spoke about the goals of the course — to sort out my ITB troubles and strengthen my core — before she conducted an initial assessment. When she told me I had scoliosis — a slight side-to-side curvature of the spine — I explained that the physio had told me as much a few weeks earlier. So no great surprises there.

I was similarly unsurprised to hear that I have laughably weak hamstrings and glutes — I’ve had trouble touching my toes for years and several physios have made a point of singling out my wimpy glutes.

But what I didn’t realise was just how much tension I carry through my shoulders. Even standing a few paces in front of me Tammy was able to see just how tight my shoulders were and how my right shoulder is particular keen on scrunching itself toward my neck. I’m so used to it that when Tammy said ‘relax your shoulders’ my first reaction was to say ‘they are relaxed’. But when I actually focused on what my shoulders were doing, I could tell she was right. I dropped my shoulders, taking note of how unnatural and forced it felt to drop them down.

I can only assume this was taught in week seven.

I can only assume this was taught in week seven. (Image: ceren_altan/Instagram)

After the revelations of the initial assessment Tammy spent some time teaching me the proper Pilates breathing technique.

Stop and think about how you’re breathing now. You probably don’t even realise it, but chances are you’re only taking very shallow breaths, pulling air only into the top of your lungs. Breathing in Pilates is different — it’s about inhaling deeply, pulling the air right into your lungs so your rib cage expands to the back and to the side. It’s about increasing the intake of oxygen which, according to the Pilates method, is both cleansing and invigorating.

A proper exhaling technique is just as important. Rather than just letting the air out, I was encourage to ‘activate’ my pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles, squeezing the air out while feeling my belly button contract in and upward.

Of course, the breathing isn’t just done in isolation. It’s combined with a dizzying array of exercises and stretches all designed to target a particular muscle or muscle group. In that first class it was all about getting the breathing right and pairing it with the most basic exercises imaginable. ‘Keep your left leg flat on the ground, now bend your right knee up at 90 degrees so your shin is parallel to your body.’

Sounds easy, right? It’s wasn’t.

I distinctly remember the early stages of the second class — my first with instructor Boris — and how my internal monologue went:

‘Alright, “neutral position”. Wait, what does that mean again? Oh right, halfway between flat back and fully arched. Ok, got it.

Knees hip-width apart. That looks about right. Feet flush on the ground with my big toe, smallest toe and heel all firmly planted? That seems fine. Right, these shoulders. All kinds of tension going on there. Let’s rotate these bad-boys back a bit, loosen them off. Ok, I think I’ve got it.

Now what am I doing again? Oh that’s right, rolling up from the mat along my back into a bridge position. Let’s go. Damn it. I’m supposed to breathe right? OK, easy. Wait. Am I supposed to breathe in or out as I curl up? Hmm, “breathe out on the effort” so that means I need a deep breath in here.

Ok, fill the lungs, feel my lungs expand. And go. Curl up. Don’t move my pelvis. Keep my shoulders down. Have I got enough breath left to get to the top? Oh my pelvis is rotating when it shouldn’t be. I’m supposed to feel this in my glutes, right? I’m just feeling it in my brain at the moment. Oh and now Boris is watching me. He’s either going to laugh at me or tell me I’ve got no idea what I’m doing. Keep going. Maybe he’ll get distracted and forget how terrible I am.’

Of course Boris didn’t laugh at me nor tell me I had no idea, but he could have: I looked like an uncoordinated mess and I did have no idea what I was doing. In fact, for the first few weeks I felt like a rank amateur, a fish out of water, useless. This feeling was only exacerbated when I looked around the room to see Andy doing his routines with the precision and poise of someone out of a fitness instruction video. His sister Nicole wasn’t far behind.

But it got better.

The breathing, which initially felt exaggerated and unnecessary, eventually started to feel more natural. The exercises I had been doing for a few weeks began to feel familiar and I was able to get through a series of exercises by myself without Boris having remind me how to do them and in what order.

And then, just as I started to get closer to an understanding of how not to look like an absolute muppet, Boris would change things up again. I’d go from doing exercises on the ‘caddy’ (or ‘cadillac’ — see the first video in this piece) — a sort-of padded bed with spring-loaded bars positioned above — to excruciating legwork on the ‘reformer’ (see video above) — another bed-like contraption with a spring-loaded end-section for pushing against.

A+ for Wunda Chair technique. A+ for location. (Image: saulobh/Instagram)

A+ for Wunda Chair technique. A+ for location. (Image: saulobh/Instagram)

Then he’d stick me on the ‘Wunda Chair’  — a padded box with a spring-loaded platform that could be pushed down to the floor either by foot or by hand. And occasionally he’d show me to an apparatus that looked sort of like a rounded, two-step staircase on which I could do back stretches and, presumably if I were less awful, other exercises as well.

Using these various contraptions Boris taught me a range of exercises, each with their own specific purpose. Some would target the various muscles in my lower legs, others were designed to isolate my biceps, still others were introduced to strengthen my super-wimpy glutes — the culprit in all of my ITB troubles.

Roughly halfway through the course I started to understand that Pilates is largely about isolating particular muscles or muscle groups, rather than deploying muscle groups together. When we’re going about our daily lives we often employ multiple muscles groups to complete one action, whether that be opening a door, kicking a soccer ball or pedalling a bicycle.

The problem with a combined effort is that some muscles or muscle groups do more than their fair share, leaving other muscles underdeveloped and unable to perform when required. Such is the case with my glutes. I now understand that, without even realising it, I get out of the saddle at the first sign of distress in my glutes. As a result my quads are ‘huge’ (physio’s description, not mine) and my glutes are tiny. I’m not entirely sure how this next part works, but apparently my underdeveloped glutes are then unable to support my ITBs, leading to the problems I’ve had in the past few years.

Pilates helped me understand how to target my glutes (and other muscles) specifically, without recruiting nearby muscles to do the heavy lifting. I learned how to keep the rest of my body still while the muscle(s) in question were doing the work I asked of them.

Somewhat ironically, the better I got at doing Pilates properly, the more it started to hurt. Like, really hurt. And the searing pain during each of the exercises was challenging enough to deal with — the several days worth of lingering pain were an added bonus. One particular calf-work-intensive class left my lower legs sore for the best part of three days — an embarrassing wake-up call. ‘I’m a cyclist — surely my calves are strong enough not to get smashed by a little Pilates?!’

Perhaps the single most valuable lesson I learnt from six weeks of Pilates was just how terrible my posture is. Just how much tension I carry through my shoulders (‘Let them relax!’) and just how easy it is for me to slouch, without even realising that’s what I’m doing.

Several of the exercises Boris taught me required me to sit bolt upright while focusing on working my biceps. Every time I set myself up for the exercise I thought to myself ‘Yep, I’m sitting pretty straight here — it feels very unnatural but this is how it’s supposed to be.’

Bad posture (examples of)

Image: cartoonchurch.com

But invariably Boris would wander over and, with the patience of a saint, explain that I really  needed to sit straighter and that my core strength was, well, average to say the least. That’s a lesson that’s carried over into life outside the Pilates studio.

Almost every day at work I find myself ‘sitting’ in front of my computer with a posture that would embarrass even the most laid back of teenagers. I know now how I should be sitting and how important that is in building and maintaining core strength. I’m also constantly reminding myself to loosen my shoulders and release some of the tension that’s so often there, even though I don’t realise it.

And my brief foray into the world of Pilates has had an effect on my cycling too. There seems to be real value in taking those deep, Pilates-style breaths during aerobic activity to better flush out the carbon dioxide from the lungs and oxygenate the blood following a deep breath.

I certainly wasn’t the most talented Pilates student, nor the most coordinated, but I do feel like I got some real value out of it. My six weeks of Pilates are well and truly over but, as mentioned above, I still feel like I’m deriving recognisable benefits from the experience.

I’d like to thank Tammy for her amazing generosity in offering me the opportunity to try out Pilates — I’m very grateful. Thanks to Boris for his kindness and patience in teaching someone as ungraceful and uncoordinated as myself. And thanks to Andy, Nicole and Owen for their company through six weeks of fun, pain and learning.

Will I go back and do Pilates at some point? I’m not sure, but unlike the me of five years ago, I now have a good idea of what Pilates is, how it works and the benefits it can bring. I’m very glad I gave it a shot.

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16 Comments

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  1. Fletch / Aug 25 2012

    Was only joshing (sorry) and didn’t mean that to be snide – but fair call Josh. I actually learnt a lot and thought the piece was great. I also now know how to spell Eddy.

  2. Fletch / Aug 25 2012

    just sayin…

    • Craig / Aug 25 2012

      He didn’t ride carbon either – but that doesn’t stop us getting the advantage today…

      (btw back in the day Eddie would have loved how precise it is)

  3. Fletch / Aug 25 2012

    Eddie Merckx didn’t do pilates…

    • Josh / Aug 25 2012

      Okay, your comment is snide and worthless, but I’ll respond anyway because those of us that can spell “Eddy” also know that the guy suffered from severe back pain for much of his career, which could almost certainly have been corrected with modern recovery & rehab techniques.

      As the great man himself said, “My back became my weakness. It still affects me today. I cannot jog to keep fit because of my back”

  4. Jerome / Aug 25 2012

    Have to get a pic of thoes massive quads

  5. Andy / Aug 24 2012

    Tam had been hassling me to get into Pilates for a number of years. She was convinced it would improve my cycling – but I couldn’t understand how those simple looking movements would make any difference – so I never gave it a go.

    A few years later Tam took up cycling herself. On her third ride, we set out from Warburton to ‘try out a hill’. I figured if we got a kilometre or two up Donna that would be good going. I was surprised when we hit cement creek and continued on. Coming up to the summit I remember asking how her legs were not hurting. “When they get sore I just engage another group and use them”.

    I signed up that week.

    • Andy / Aug 24 2012

      Actually should point out that after that comment she innocently asked “well what do you do?”

    • Matt / Aug 24 2012

      One of the best comments ever on TCC. Awesome Andy. :)

  6. mariano kamp / Aug 24 2012

    very interesting read. thanks.

    what i dont get is this: if your glutes are too weak why doesnt your body develop them over time? isnt that how it works? you challenge a part of your body until it almost gives up and as a response it gets stronger afterwards?

    • Tammy van Bergen / Aug 24 2012

      Hi Mariano,

      Often when a muscle is weak the body adapts to this by using other muscle groups to compensate – in this case the hamstrings and quadriceps. These muscles take over and enable the same movement to happen.

      The problem with this is that the body is not recruiting the most efficient muscle for that movement and it can lead to imbalances and strains such as the ITB syndrome that Matt experienced.

      The great thing about Pilates is that it allows us to isolate specific muscles such as the glutes to improve their strength – and therefore the efficiency of the movement. The more efficient you are, the easier the movement becomes – making you less prone to injury.

      • Matt / Aug 24 2012

        What she said! (Thanks Tammy! :D)

      • Mariano Kamp / Aug 24 2012

        Thanks Tammy, got it 😉

  7. Dom / Aug 24 2012

    I have just started Pilates again (after doing about 6 sessions 2 years ago to get rid of some back pain then lazily dropping it as soon as the pain went away). I can definitely relate to the inner monologue part – maybe it’s the old chestnut about men and multitasking, but it’s a lot more complicated remembering all those ‘basics’ than it sounds!
    I would also recommend it, both for the strength benefits and the fact that it gets you using your muscles in the right way across all parts of your life not just when cycling.

  8. Josh / Aug 24 2012

    Hey Matt, thanks for writing up your experience, it’s a great reminder to all cyclists that core strength & general flexibility are crucial but won’t develop on the bike.

    I’ve done something similar, working with a physio to build core strength, and carried on with a group class at my local gym that combines pilates, yoga & tai chi. I attribute it directly to becoming a more powerful and efficient cyclist. I don’t think I could be racing if I hadn’t made these corrections.

    That breath technique has other benefits on the bike, too. A deep exhalation doesn’t just dump stale air, also relaxes you and activates core muscles.

  9. sam / Aug 24 2012

    Yeah, fer sure, pilates is pretty useful.

    I’ve been doing pilates for about 8 months now and have noticed a massive difference. I have pretty bad posture, a poorly developed upper back and terrible flexibility, which have all improved a fair bit. I guess the main thing is I don’t get a sore back as much, and my posture is better. And I can run a slammed stem…

    I highly recommend Perfect Pilates for people around Brunswick.

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