Watching the first World Cup race of the season in Lourdes last month, I couldn’t help thinking how hard it must be for the riders to put their qualification runs behind them and get a decent night’s sleep ahead of the final.
Whether they are riders that thrive on the pressure of being out in front or that put in their best times on finals day, we all know how hard it can be to sleep when we’re anticipating something exciting or challenging that we have to do the next day.
In this article, I am going to give you a short series of yoga poses that you can practice before bed to help you get an amazing night's sleep. And the best part is, they require very little effort and no previous yoga experience. The importance of sleep for performance
There are an increasing number of studies showing that poor sleep correlates with reduced next-day performance. For example, in a 2021 WHOOP study
, they found that individuals had a 5-10% decrease in next-day executive function and cognitive control after accumulating 45 minutes of sleep debt. And aside from the research, I think we all feel it. After a poor night’s sleep, we feel lethargic, find it hard to concentrate and our athletic performance is noticeably impaired. We get tired faster, feel more achy and don’t have the strength or power that we have access to after a night of deep, restorative sleep.
The trouble with sleep, however, is that it can be the most illusive when we most need it the most. Say, the night before a world cup race, before taking on the A-Line in Whistler or before an important presentation at work. It’s almost impossible to will yourself to sleep so we need to come up with a better strategy.The role of the central nervous system
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system that mediate your level of arousal on a continuum from deep calm to high alert. In sympathetic mode, your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and other functions increase to prepare your body for physical exertion—a mountain bike race or training session at the gym. The parasympathetic response does the opposite—decreasing your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension to ease your body into rest, sleep or digestion.
Something else to consider is that the nervous system response is bi-directional, meaning that it can be triggered either top-down by your thoughts or by bottom-up through bodily sensations. For example, stressful thoughts and increased muscle tension trigger the sympathetic response whereas peaceful thoughts and conscious, belly breathing activate the parasympathetic response.
Before an important or challenging event, it is close to impossible to use your mind to calm your mind, especially if you have a disappointing performance that you need to put behind you. What you have to do is get out of your head and into your body to trigger a bottom-up state change. You are not alone
A few years ago, I received a message from a world champ—“Do you do pre-sleep ANTI stress yoga? Like before a race?” And of course, the answer is yes.
There are many different styles of yoga but the one I am going to cover in this article is accessible to everyone, requires little motivation, no previous experience and is highly effective for smoothing the passage into restorative sleep. The technical name is yin yoga. In yin, we don’t flow between poses like we do in sun salutations but instead hold each posture for 10-15 breaths, using gravity not force to increase the intensity of the stretch.
There is actually a little more to it than that as you need to control your attention and practice a particular style of breathing to get the most out of it. If you stretch mindlessly without paying attention to your breath, you can actually create more tension in the body. This is going to negate the calming properties of the practice and could even make it harder to sleep.
Therefore, I recommend that you don’t do anything else while you practice yin yoga. Don’t watch Netflix or scroll through images on your phone. You can listen to music if you like—something that is not highly stimulating but you really want to keep your environment as clean and undistracted as possible. Yin yoga pose selection
There are a number of different yin poses that you can string together into a sequence to activate the parasympathetic response—some that focus on the legs and hips and others that target the upper body, including the shoulders and thoracic spine. You will find some examples here
and in this article, I will give you a simple routine that you can try.
You may already be familiar with these poses. The only difference is that you will hold them for longer and instead of thinking about stretching your muscles, you are going to focus on releasing tension
in the muscle. This may seem like an insignificant distinction but in fact, it can make all the difference. Elevate your night-time stretching game
As I mentioned, to trigger the deepest state of calm and relaxation, there are two techniques that you need to incorporate—conscious breathing and fine-tuning your interoception (your perception of sensations inside your body).1. Breathing
We have mechanisms built into the body that both induce stress and turn it off as well as create calm and prevent it. These mechanisms also make it easier or more difficult to fall and stay asleep and one of them is the breath.
There is a vital relationship between how we breathe and our level of alertness and calmness. Inhalations are connected to the sympathetic nervous system and exhalations to the parasympathetic nervous system. So if you want to be more alert, you need to make your inhalations longer than your exhalations and if you want to relax, you want to extend your exhalations relative to your inhalations.
In yin yoga, as in all yoga, the breath is primary. We breathe in and out through the nose, deep down into your abdomen. It can be hard to remember to do this throughout the session but it does become easier with practice and in time, you’ll find that this skill transfers into your riding and everyday life.
Diaphragmatic nasal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous response and allows your muscles to let go of tension. So as you settle into each pose, try to slow your breathing right down to a pace that is comfortable and soothing. As you become more experienced, you can start to draw out the length of your exhalations. For example, breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 or 8. You will start to notice, with your enhanced interoceptive powers, that the release of tension takes place on the exhalation. 2. Controlling your awareness
During your stretching session, you could drift off and allow your mind to wander but to get the most out of the practice, I recommend that you focus on your breath and the physical sensations in your body. This is an excellent opportunity to improve your body awareness and increase your powers of focus and concentration.
The foundational technique in yin yoga is to focus on your breath and specifically, the sensations of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. This could be the passing of cool and warm air, in and out of you nostrils but it is more likely to be the gentle expansion and contraction of your belly and your chest. You can also focus on the sensation of the stretch where you feel it most noticeably and breathe into that spot.
This is actually a form of meditation. Sensing and feeling instead of thinking or doing. Aiming to keep your attention on your embodied experience and trying not to let your mind to wander. However, unless you have monkish powers, it will be practically impossible to keep this up for your entire session. So each time you notice that you are lost in thought, just gently bring your attention back to your breath or to physical sensations in your body. 7 yin poses to decrease sympathetic activation (alertness) and increase the parasympathetic response (calm)
Here are 7 poses I have chosen that will give you the best bang for your buck. I recommend that you pick up a strap because they cost almost nothing and give you considerable extra traction. Hold each pose for 10-15 breaths (on each side), in and out through your nose if you can.
This sequence will take you around 15-20 minutes depending on how long you spend in each of the poses.1. Legs-Up-The-Wall
Sit right up against a wall with the side of your hip touching. Then lie back and swing your legs up against the wall. Scoot your glutes as close to the wall as you can, straighten your legs and bring your feet hip-width apart. You can bend your elbows like a cactus with your palms facing up or bring your arms straight out to the sides. Allow the weight of your legs to settle you into the pose.2. Puppy
Come to all fours, walk your hands forward, draw your hips back and rest your forehead on the mat. Check that your hips are directly over your knees and start to take 10-15 long, slow, diaphragmatic breaths, in and out through your nose.
Take a deep breath in. Exhale, release the pose and come back up to all fours.3. Half-Twisted Scorpion
Come down onto your belly. Bring your left arm out to the side at shoulder height—then bring it forward a few inches, palm facing down. Bend your right knee and press into your right hand to twist your body open to the right. Bring your right foot flat to the mat behind your left leg and let your right knee fall open. Adjust your left arm to a position where it is comfortable and hold for 10-15 diaphragmatic breaths.
Repeat on the other side. Then push yourself back up to all fours. 4. Reclining Butterfly
You can do this pose with or without yoga blocks. If you have blocks, position the first one vertically, near the top of your mat in the centre and the second one horizontally at medium height a little further down.
Then lie back with your shoulder blades resting on the lower block and the back of your head resting on the higher block. Bring your arms out to the sides, palms face up. Then bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open in the shape of a diamond. Close your eyes and relax into the pose for 10-15 breaths.5. Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe A
Put your blocks to one side and grab your strap. Straighten your right leg to the mat, loop the strap around the ball of your left foot and press through your heel to straighten your left leg up to the sky. Keep the back of your left hip firmly pressing into the mat. Walk your hands up your strap, keep your left leg straight and flex your right foot.
Broaden across your collarbones and breathe into the stretch. Relax your neck and shoulders and try to bring your leg in a little closer on every exhalation, gently coaxing your hamstrings into lengthening.6. Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe B
Take a deep breath in. Exhale, draw your left leg all the way over to the right-hand side of your mat (the opposite leg to the picture above). Keep your both legs straight and press through your raised heel.
Take a deep breath in. Exhale, bring your left leg back to centre and release the pose. Repeat these two Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe variations on the other side.7. Twisted Root
Cross your right leg over your left leg and if you can, wrap your right toes around the back of your left ankle. Bring your arms out in a T, palms face down. Take a deep breath in. Exhale, gently lower both knees to the left and turn your head to the right. It’s ok if your knees don't come all the way down. Draw your right shoulder down towards the mat and breathe into the twist.
Take a deep breath in. Exhale, carefully bring yourself back to centre for the other side.Practice makes perfect
Restorative yoga like this is like anything else—you get better at it with practice, as you train your central nervous system response. So I recommend trying this session several times a week before bed and seeing how you feel. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. I'd love to hear how you get on!And if you find these poses useful and want to try a 15-minute post-ride yoga video for free, click this link:
Free Post-Ride Yoga For MTB Video