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The Dark Side of Yoga for Mountain Bikers (and How to Avoid it)

Article by Gene Hamilton

I have written plenty of times about the many benefits of my on-again, off-again yoga practice but failed to mention the dark side (and why my practice has been sporadic over the last 14 years). I have stressed going to a yoga studio with dedicated yoga teachers, not doing what I call “gym yoga” with 30 students and one teacher with limited experience, but even well meaning, dedicated teachers are human and make mistakes.

My first yoga experience was in 1998 in Boulder, Colorado. My friend Rusty was getting into yoga and he convinced me to go to a class at the YMCA. He used the, “not only is great for you, there are a lot of pretty girls there” approach that tends to work on single men. Well, there were a lot of pretty girls there and an instructor who sat way at the end of the room and basically did his own yoga practice while explaining to us what to do (not what I would call a good instructor). He never walked around the room watching and correcting our form, which is fundamental to yoga. Men, especially when there are four or five of them in a room with 25 women, are rather competitive so I wanted to do everything the teacher and my friend Rusty were doing. Unfortunately, I was cheating, rounding my lower back when I should of been hinging at the hips and various other ways to allow my unflexable body to bend like the instructor’s (in my eyes). Since the instructor did not walk around the room and observe us I never knew I was doing poses incorrectly. One day I found out just how incorrectly I was doing things when I heard an audible pop in my lower back and felt a sudden pain there. Long story short,  I stopped doing yoga that day and spent two weeks getting massage therapy and visiting the chiropractor to fix my back.

Two years later when I lived in Fruita, Colorado I discovered a wonderful yoga studio ran by a woman in her late sixties. She had studied under B. K. S. Iyengar, founder of Iyenger Yoga and was, as described by a  friend of mine “old school” in how strict she was (my nickname for her was the Yoga Nazi, after the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld). After three weeks of doing four to five yoga classes a week I was really feeling good and was starting to really enjoy yoga. Then one day in class we were focusing on twists to open up our hips and backs and she came up behind me and in her Austrian accent said, “Why are you so stiff Gene, you are too young to be so stiff!” and then she powerfully twisted me further and again, snap, a muscle let go in my back. Another round of chiropractor and massage therapist visits. This time I tentatively returned to yoga just didn’t take classes that she taught, but often still felt more back pain after yoga than before, I honestly thought this was part of the process, no pain, no gain.

I repeated this on-again, off-again practice for the next 11 years or so until last winter when I started doing yoga regularly. This time, with a little investigation I found more enlightened yoga instructors. They would say things like, “find the softness in the pose”, “relax and breathe, don’t strain” and perhaps the best thing to tell students, “it is your practice, go only to the edge of discomfort where you can still breathe”. This was amazing, as I found that if I stayed at the edge of discomfort and used my breathe  I could slowly open up my body much deeper than when I tried to force it! I was also fortunate enough to get a few private lessons with BetterRides’ Communications Director who had just gotten back from yoga teacher training in Thailand. She explained some really basic concepts of how to stand correctly and hold poses correctly as well as the goal of many common poses (why we are doing this pose, and how it will look and feel when I am able to do it really well). Then one day I showed up to yoga class and I was the only student! Rather than cancel the class the instructor gave me a private lesson and really focused on how I could and could not move. She was the first instructor to tell me to only go so far in certain forward folds and to bend my knees in forward folds (that are designed to be done with straight legs) where I was curving my lower back instead of hinging. She also told me to sit on a folded blanket to tilt my hips forward when doing seated forward folds (just like tilting my saddle forward so I can hinge at the hips better on my bike!). When I went to Bali this summer many of the instructors reinforced these same techniques. Being able to bend my knees a little and focusing on bringing my chest to my thighs made yoga completely pain free for me! This allowed me to really open up my body!

Unfortunately, my favorite yoga instructor, here in Tempe moved away so I have been searching for some new instructors. My search brought me to a Yin Yoga class after a short, but great ride on South Mountain. As a matter of fact it was last Wednesday, the day after I published my “Mountain Biking and Back Pain: How to Prevent it and Cure it” article. Also, a few days after I aware of my breath throughout an entire yoga class (a huge breakthrough for me). Halfway through a great class while blissfully meditating in a seated forward fold the instructor starts pushing on my lower back to deepen my stretch. My first thought was to yell “STOP!”, but I didn’t want to interrupt the others in the class and thought that maybe with all the classes I had taken recently my back was actually hinged (instead of bent) and he was helping me hinge further. Nope, after the class my lower back was starting to hurt and by the time I rode my bike home it was really hurting!

Well, I knew this was a muscle pull, not tight myofasica, but I figured some light foam rolling would help so I spent 20-30 minutes working on getting my lower back to relax. Then I had to continue boxing up my bike for my flight to Austin the next day. As you can imagine sitting on a plane for two hours and hauling my bike box around airports, into rental cars and into my hotel wasn’t the best therapy for a pulled muscle, but there were eight eager students excited to be coached the next day. After Friday’s coaching my back didn’t feel any worse, still hurt a little from the pulled muscle but not too bad. I rolled on my tennis balls for a half hour and it felt a little better. Repeated the same routine on Saturday and felt great on Sunday morning. The Students were stoked, it looked like the rain was going to hold off and I was looking forward to coaching. Then I bent down to tie my shoe and wham! That pulled muscle lit up and still hurts like heck today, two days, one massage and one chiropractor visit later.

How can you benefit from this cautionary tale? Take your time to find good, supportive yoga instructors and if you don’t want harsh physical adjustments tell the instructor before the class (the best ones will usually ask first but many, like mine the other day don’t ask). I still love yoga and will continue to do it but I won’t think twice about telling an instructor to get his hands off me, even it disrupts the whole class. I know he meant well but he should of asked and regardless I should of told him to stop. My failure to yell stop is going to cost me a week or two of lost work and a week or two of not enjoying my life and losing what little fitness I regained this fall. Oh, and hundreds of dollars in chiropractor and massage therapy bills. Please learn from my mistake!

Students Get BetterRide MTB Skills Coaching Tattoos!

Two BetterRide mountain bike skills students got BR tattoos less than a week after their three day skills progression (camp)!

Jan and Eric, a couple from Santa Cruz, CA got similar but different BetterRide MTB tattoos a week after their camp with us!

Jan’s tattoo:

 

Jan's sweet Tattoo!

What Jan had to say: “This camp was real emotional for me.  I gathered so much information from the Betterride 3-day camp.  The vision tool of looking ahead to the body position of being centered over the bottom bracket to the importance of drills were stressed over and over among other helpful hints.  I went to two and one half other skill camps that were 8 hr day camps for beginners thru experts, but they just didn’t do it for ME.  All I took away from those courses were broken bones.  Those camps showed me a few drills the first half of the day and then the second half of the day was spent riding the trail.   During the Betterride camp, sometimes I was on the crest of shedding tears of fear that were brought on from my experience at prior camps, but by the end of the 3-days, I was shedding tears of joy.  I was overwhelmed with a great experience with a new way of teaching and learning.  What a better way to share this with others than with a Betterride Tattoo!
Jan

(Mind you Gene,  I do not have any negative -ness with those camps that I went to before yours.  I believe in the coaches that work with these camps.  I know they love coaching or else they wouldn’t be doing it. The thing about coaching and students is it has to “click”.  There were students in those classes who had way less experience than I, and came out better than I did in those clinics.  I did want to mention that at class but I didn’t want to talk too much.)

Eric’s Tattoo:

 

Eric's Tattoo!

I won’t bore you with more praise for BetterRide from Eric, I will let his tattoo do the talking!

BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton said he was flattered and still in a state of disbelief. “We have had a lot of students blog about their experience in our camps, mention us in mountain bike magazines and write thank you notes, but this is over the top!” exclaimed Hamilton.

I Purposely Crashed My Mountain Bike Today!

I Purposely Crashed My Mountain Bike Today! (How to Set Yourself Up to Ride Your Best)  MTB Training Article by Gene Hamilton

Seriously, I made myself crash! I didn’t want to crash but if you watched the lead up to my crash I did everything possible to set myself up for disaster.

I often tell my students that most mountain bike crashes happen within five minutes of throwing your leg over your bike. I explain that often, when we don’t warm up for at least ten minutes (twenty to thirty minutes is best) we aren’t fully focused and ready to ride. Today I disobeyed my warm up rule and paid for it. I woke early (5:45 am), fixed a rear flat and headed to South Mountain. When I arrived I had just enough time to get my riding gear on and we were off.  I even said, “I don’t know how you guys do this, I like to warm up before I ride.” Colin then said maybe we should do a long run (a series of trails that have a a few climbs and flat sections providing a decent warm up) and I decided against it! Off we went down Geronimo, I felt pretty good on the first section, missed a few lines but considering the lack of warm up felt alright. After waiting for the crew to regroup I took off down the trail and had a conscious thought (should I take my normal line or try this other line), took a different line than normal and the next thing I knew I was on the ground in a lot of pain.

Conscious thoughts have no place in mountain biking, you need to just do, not make decisions! I wasn’t in mountain bike mode, I was still trying to wake up, thinking about the election results and the traffic I fought to get to the trail. This was not the focus I needed to ride scary trails at my best!

I landed about seven feet below the trail and was fortunate to land on one of the only spots with sand mixed with rocks, as the next 100 meters is all big rocks on the side of the trail. I Feel really fortunate that I wasn’t hurt worse. Ended up with a sore left shoulder, deep thigh bruise on my left thigh, cut left ankle, headache, big scratch in my fork stanchion, broken left grip and feeling rather nauseous.

The moral of this story is warm up before you mountain bike! Your body and your brain both need to be warmed up and in bike mode (not loving father mode, stressed out business woman mode, mad about bad drivers mode or still thinking about what your boss said mode!) before you end down a trail! My usual warmup consists of 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching then a minimum of 15 minutes of riding (often doing body position and cornering drills plus a few sprints). I ALWAYS ride better when I do this! Glad re-learning this lesson for the 6th or 7th time did not involve a trip to the hospital!

Is Your Bike Loud?

Is your mountain bike loud?

A year and a half ago I was sitting on top of Bootleg Canyon watching the start of the pro downhill race (before my start). The fourth or fifth rider to start was a kid I am fortunate enough to coach named Mitch Ropelato. After Mitch disappeared from sight the racer next to me exclaimed, “wow, I wish my bike was that quiet!”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his bike is that quiet, it is the rider that is making it loud. While all bikes (especially downhill bikes on tracks as rough as Bootleg Canyon) make some noise (a little chain slap, the tires hitting rocks, rocks thrown from the tires hitting the frame, etc) when they are ridden well that noise should be at a minimum.

How to use bike noise to improve your mountain bike riding:

Something we really stress in our skills progression is being smooth. We stress this because, the smoother you are the more in control, efficient and faster you are! Your bike provides you with great feedback on being smooth. If your bike is making a lot of noise (loud chain slap, loud pings and noises coming from your frame, suspension and/or tires) as you ride you aren’t being as smooth as you could be. Use this feedback to remind yourself to relax, breathe and flow with the trail instead of fighting it! Don’t just rely on your suspension, use your arms, legs and especially your ankles to smooth out the trail.

 

Greg Minnaar looking smooth!

If you get a chance to watch (and listen) to a great mountain bike rider like Mitch or Greg Minnaar pay attention to how smooth and quiet they are on their bikes. They are excellent examples of economy as they smoothly flow down the trail, often taking rougher/faster lines, but taking those lines cleanly. Often, they are so smooth they look slow as they aren’t getting thrown around by the trail.

This ties in with the article on Mountain Bike Rides That Feel Fast but Are Actually Slow!

http://betterride.net/?p=2827