Traditionally, “shoulder to the wheel” means to work hard or exert yourself. While you certainly do those things when cycling, the phrase took on whole new meaning for me this year. Bar tops, hoods, and drops could refer to an ‘interesting’ Saturday night in Manhattan… but for the purposes of this article, they are the three main placements of a cyclist’s hands on the handlebars, which clearly establish three very different body positions on the bicycle.
1. Riding on the bar tops is an upright and fairly relaxed position (where many people are most comfortable)
2. Riding on the hoods (the rubber thingies that protect your brake lever mechanics), moves your upper body a little lower and forward.
3. Being in the drops takes you into a more aggressive and aerodynamic position. This promotes greater power transfer to the legs. I spend a lot of time in those three positions, especially on the hoods and in the drops. Why is this important? If you take a look at the photos below, you can see the increased flexion in my upper back as my hand position changes. “Shoulder to the wheel” as it were.
This Fall, I raced my first triathlon as part of a relay team. The ride was a beautiful 25-mile loop that started at Long Island Sound and headed north through small urban centers then wooded residential areas and back. The race organizers provided a weekly training ride for participants to familiarize themselves with the course. The weekly assignment from my trainer was to ride the course twice: one loop with the group ride, then a second loop faster than the first. The first few miles were lovely. Then the road conditions got progressively worse. Mile after mile of really, really hideous pavement. At least half the course was harsh, torn-up road thanks to a mean New York winter, a wet spring, a flood and a small thing called Hurricane Irene. Initially, I thought “no big deal, I’ve ridden on bad pavement, it just makes it a little harder.”
I have ridden thousands of miles on the bike shown above, totally pain free, even after a Century ride. Sure, there’s soreness and exhaustion in the working and supportive muscles: quads, hamstrings, trapezius, deltoids, neck extensors and the pecs. But pain is different, and during and after my very first training ride, my upper back and triceps were killing me. The “road bang” put the beating on my wrists, triceps and shoulder girdle as never before. It was clear that the hands, arms and shoulders/upper back are the ginormous shock absorbers between the road and the rest of your body. So… ow.
Here’s what I figured out. While riding in the drops:
1. My spine is in flexion (bent forward) and my shoulder blades are protracted (separating).
2. My upper arms are flexed and externally rotated.
3. The elbow joint is flexed, while the lower arm bones are either pronating or supinating, depending on the hand position. See a pattern? Flexion, flexion, flexion! It’s my personal Marcia Brady.
After that one ride, my rhomboids (the muscles between the shoulder blades that guide retraction) were like rocks under my skin and my triceps were actually tender to the touch. Those muscles are the antagonists of flexion. Which means they do the opposite of the contracting muscles, which is to stretch. So, while riding on the the hideous pavement with the even more hideous road bang, my abdominals/psoas/deltoids/pecs/biceps/teres minor/serratus were contracting to keep my hips, shoulders and arms in flexion. But…my rhomboids and triceps (primarily) were stretching and therefore opened up for abuse.
After looking at the photos I tilted my head to right, Scooby-Doo style, and saw the relationship to sitting/schlumping at the computer or driving for hours. Just a little more extreme.
So what’s a cycling yogini to do? Reach into the YTU bag of tricks to learn yoga poses for cyclists. I spent a lot of time on the Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls, especially the Upper Back Series. First, rolling on the wall to keep the pressure light on those tender muscles. I moved to the floor only when I thought I could manage the compression (week 2-1/2ish). The magic move for me was to place the YTU Therapy Balls about a third of the way down my scapula, flex my arms to 90-degrees and then simply protract and retract the shoulder blades This also got into the trapezius muscles which lay superficially to (above) the rhomboids, a two-fer. Over time, I gently teased those peach pits out from in-between my scapulae. For my achey-owie triceps, I also rolled on the wall, kind of like a bear scratching on a tree, just on the arms.
Then to strengthen those overstretched triceps, I added both dynamic and isometric YTU exercises. For the triceps were: Long Head of the Tricep, Bridge Arms, Pin the Arms on the Yogi and the Shoulder Flossing minivinis. There was a noticeable change in how my upper body felt on the bike after incorporating that work more frequently. I make a point of keeping this work in my personal program, and in cyclists who I work with, it has changed my performance and comfort on the bike and made recovery quicker.
Also read our post Yoga for Cyclists – Cross Training Can Help You Go the Extra Mile.