Pilates for Cyclists: An Interview

There are many different reasons to undertake Pilates to support your training and involvement in sports. As a clinician you can tell people that strength and conditioning is a key component to their success and injury prevention in both sprint and long-distance events, but there isn’t anything more convincing than hearing from a sportswoman herself. Pilates incorporates both the flexibility and the strength aspects important for a sport such as cycling, as well as tackling the lesser known areas such as body awareness and posture on the bike.

Injuries are common in cyclists ranging from 24-62% obtaining knee injuries, 3-31% lower back and 3-66% having neck pain, Clarsen et al (2010). We chatted to one of our Wimbledon clinic clients Lillian Choy about her experience incorporating Pilates into her cycling training and how that changed her outlook on injury prevention.


How long have you been doing Pilates?

I have been coming to the APPI Wimbledon clinic for nearly 2 years now and do a weekly Pilates class which I love!  The reason why I started is because I developed neck pain and a radiculopathy with pins and needles going down my right arm whilst training for a big cycling event in 2017.  This prompted me to re-evaluate my posture, the sort of exercise and training that I was doing and to look at ways in which I could reduce the risk of future injuries. At the time, I was doing a lot of cycling, some rock climbing, but not much else in terms of core strength, stretching or flexibility exercises.


How long have you been cycling and why did you start?

I have been road cycling for over 10 years. I used to be the driver/general support for my husband and his friends when they first got into cycling and started doing big sportives like the Etape and Marmotte in 2006. My achievement on those trips was riding my mountain bike up the top third of Alpe d’huez that first year. I felt very pleased with myself when I managed the whole of the Alpe the following year. Then on Christmas morning 2008 a road bike was waiting for me down in the garage. Now virtually all of holidays are based around riding our bikes!


What cycling event are you currently training for?

Each summer I usually have a target event – something long which involves a lot of climbing on the bike.  In previous years I have completed events such as the Maratona, the Etape, the Marmotte and the Haute Route Alps. This year, my 2 main events are the Haute Route Norway (3 stages) in early August, which will then be followed 3 weeks later by the Haute Route Alps – 8 stages in 7 days starting in Megeve and finishing in Nice, a total of 800km with over 20000 metres of climbing.  For each stage I will be spending probably 6 to 10 hours a day on the bike trying to make the time cut offs and staying ahead of the Lanterne Rouge.


What has been your biggest challenge training for it?

Having already successfully completed the Haute Route Alps in 2017 I am feeling a bit more relaxed about it this time round. For my training I have been doing 2 turbo sessions during the week after work, and then at least one if not 2 long bike rides over the weekend.  For cross training I do one reformer Pilates class and go to the climbing wall once a week.  The biggest challenge so far this year has been the weather!


Have you ever had any cycling related injuries?

The biggest challenge injury wise that I have had has been the neck pain and radiculopathy in 2017 which I think was provoked by an unsuitable desk set up at work, and then aggravated by long periods on the bike in a fixed position with a hyperextended neck.  It was excruciatingly painful and for several weeks I was unable to ride my bike for any significant periods of time.  I remember feeling very frustrated and depressed as I was trying to train for the Haute Route Alps at the time and was worried that I would be able to get fit enough. Since I was a teenager, I have also had intermittent lumbar back pain. As a result of attending a weekly Pilates class in the last 2 years I have become more aware of my posture and my core and back strength have improved so that I now only occasionally suffer from minor flares.


Do you have your bike set up done by a professional?

Yes – following my injury in 2017, I went to see a professional bike fitter to check and optimise my position on the bike.


How do you feel that Pilates has affected your cycling training? 

Cycling long distances means that I spend several hours hunched on a bike in a fairly fixed and flexed position with a hyperextended neck; developing strong quads, but relatively weak arms, core, abs and tight hamstrings.  Pilates has helped ‘balance’ me out by working on my weaknesses.  My core strength and flexibility have improved and I have better posture on the bike.


What are your favourite areas of the body to work on in your Pilates classes?

To stretch my hamstrings which can feel getting tight from all the cycling I do and strengthening and toning my arms, back and neck. I have noticed more muscle definition in those areas as a result of doing Pilates! Also, any kind of back extension and spinal mobility exercises to counteract the long hours spent flexed and hunched on a road bike.


Do you think Pilates has made a big difference in your cycling?

Yes – prior to Pilates I was very right leg dominant.  According to the readings from the power meter on my cycling pedals my right leg was doing significantly more work compared to my left leg.  (54% vs 46%).   Since I started Pilates my left leg has become a lot stronger and less lazy so my legs are now a lot more balanced with 51%/49% balance.  I think my bike position has improved and am now much better at keeping my shoulders and scapulae down and pulled back instead of hunched up towards my neck. Pilates has also made a big difference in my rock climbing as well.  As my core is now much stronger, I am finding it easier to climb on the steeper and more overhanging walls as I am able to pull my body close to the climbing wall for longer periods of time. I have a very stressful job as a hospital doctor and I look forward to my Thursday evening Pilates class as it has been a great way for me to relax and distress whilst concentrating on my breathing and coordination as I do the exercises.