With all the doping scandals in the news recently, the question of whether there are ?alternative? methods of recuperation to the traditional medications taken by cyclists has probably never been more relevant or topical.
Professional bike riders tend to be fairly conservative by nature, but alternative medicine is slowly making inroads. The ethos behind all these therapies is to treat the body as a whole entity, not just alleviate specific symptoms.
A greater overall well-being can help riders in many ways. We talked to three different professionals about why and when they have used them. They all believe that these methods can be used not just for recovery from injury, but for general well-being and recovery from riding each day. Even more importantly they believe the techniques they use are safe ? and legitimate ? ways to enhance their racing performance.
By finding a therapy that suits you and your needs it can take the place of products that can be much more damaging to your health, and which could, in the worst of circumstances, cost you your competitive career.
Discovery Channel pro Michael Barry is convinced that acupuncture helps him both for general recovery and relaxation, and for specific injuries.
Barry ?got into? acupuncture partly as a result of living in Boulder, Colorado, a city where alternative lifestyles dominate.
His wife, Dede (herself a former pro bike rider and Olympic medallist) suffered an infection and on a friend?s recommendation went to an acupuncturist ? and it worked.
He started going to the acupuncturist in the winter of 2005-6. He would go for a session after five or six-hour rides and discovered that it had a beneficial effect on recovery.
?It relaxes your muscles more deeply than when you have a massage, so you sleep deeply.?
However, Barry has not used acupuncture during races, unlike Andreas Klöden and T-Mobile, who did during the Tour this year. Klöden had a crash in the Ardennes, badly bruising one of his buttocks, and sang the praises of Danish team acupuncturist John Boel afterwards for helping sort that out.
Barry?s far more serious injury in the Tour of Flanders this April, breaking three vertebrae in his back, encouraged him to look for an acupuncturist near his European base at Gerona, Spain.
?I wanted to get back to racing as quickly as possibly, so started working with a guy who teaches at Barcelona University.?
He went there once a week and found that for blood circulation and easing the tension in the muscles that had been inflamed around the damaged vertebrae, acupuncture was a great solution.
?It?s very interesting; when they put the needles in your back for 10 minutes or half an hour I usually fall into a deep, deep sleep and wake up feeling completely refreshed. So I really believe in it.
?You can feel the muscles are tense when the needles go in, but then after about five minutes, they suddenly relax.
?I could feel the improvement almost immediately.?
The cost varies radically. In the USA Barry paid $120 for the first session and then $60 a time, whereas in Spain it cost him $35. Sessions are usually around an hour to 90 minutes.
For recovery from riding when he is healthy, Barry points out that muscles can become damaged because of the intensity of racing.
?Acupuncture works on the normal nervous system, so it lowers your stress levels, which in turn helps your muscles.?
For those squeamish at the thought of getting 25 to 30 needles inserted into your skin, Barry says that you don?t normally see them and it is never painful. You may be surprised to find that when you go to an appointment with a leg injury you are asked to stick your tongue out. The structure, colour and coating of your tongue gives a good guide to your physical health.
You will also be asked about your sleep patterns, medical history, diet and lifestyle. By developing a clear picture of your overall health, a specific diagnosis can be made that goes beyond the immediate symptoms.
Michael Barry also uses yoga postures essentially as a way of relaxing his muscles after riding ? but interestingly, he doesn?t really ?do? the meditation side of it.
?The great thing is I can do these postures during stage races as well as when I?m at home,? says Barry, who took up yoga because of living in Boulder, Colorado, where it is widely practised.
He?s taken certain parts of the yoga ?philosophy? and found that applying them to bike riding has real benefits.
?The postures and breathing techniques are very useful, for loosening up my muscles. It?s just like stretching but the procedures are very different.?
He travels with a yoga mat to stage races and spends anywhere between half an hour and 60 minutes in the evenings adopting the postures in his hotel room.?
In the off-season he?s tried classes which include the spiritual side of yoga, but says that the principle benefit of them is getting to learn the postures better.?
Barry says that as soon as you go to a yoga class, you quickly learn which postures are the best for a cyclist.
?We work our backs, hips and legs a lot, and anything that does that is going to be good for you.?
Two personal favourites are the ?downward dog?, where Barry puts his hands on the ground and stretches his back, hamstrings and Achilles tendons, and the other is where he turns the other way but adopting the same posture in an upwards facing V, the upward-facing dog.
The 90-minute ?spiritual sessions? and breathing routine that he does as classes can be handy, he says, particularly in time trialling and focusing on objectives.
?When you?re more relaxed, anyway, you sleep better and work better.?
Spaniard Jon Bru, who rides for the Continental Professional team Kaiku, uses a Chinese technique of improving well-being known as Chi-Kung ? which roughly translates as ?energy paths? ? for improving his bike riding as well.
?Sometimes I?ve actually had to tone it down because it?s worked too well!? Bru, who went to China last year to ?be as well informed about it as possible? tells CW.
?Part of the process involves ?mentalising? yourself, and visualising certain qualities of certain animals.
?I found if, when I was doing Chi-Kung, I thought too hard about the qualities of an eagle or a horse, say, then when I went out training I burned myself by riding too hard. So I had to tone it down.
?Now I use it mainly for relaxation, although you can use it before training as well. It depends on the area of Chi-Kung you want to work with.?
Chi-Kung, he says, is ?very similar to acupuncture or yoga, in that you are focusing on opening up blocked energy channels.
?The advantage of it, though, is that once you?ve learned the techniques ? and it?s far better to learn one well in Chi-Kung than several badly ? you don?t have to go to a specialist, so after the initial course, it?s free.?
Another technique he has found specifically useful for cycling is ?visualising? himself on a bike, riding well and without any difficulties.
?It?s been very effective. In a sense you?re channelling your energy,? says Bru, who spends up to half an hour using Chi-Kung techniques before he actually gets on the bike.
?But it isn?t just about being a better bike rider, it helps your sense of well-being in general.?
Bru is such a firm believer in the benefits of Chi-Kung he has just opened a centre in his home town of Multiva in Navarre so other people can learn about it on courses and where you can also get massages, and there is a reflexologist. Working with cyclists is, needless to say, one of the centre?s specialities.
?Ideally,? he concludes, ?these ?alternative? techniques and medicines shouldn?t completely replace the ones we are used to, but where necessary should be used in conjunction with them.?
Bru is a real enthusiast for alternative medicine and techniques like yoga and Chi-Kung, but he does say that you have to be careful and not fling yourself headlong into it.
?The problem is that a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon as alternative medicines become more popular, and you?ve got to be able to distinguish between the genuine article and the tricksters.? How to do so is difficult, but he says with time and experience you can learn to make sure you aren?t being ripped off.
Basically, if what you are doing isn?t doing you any good, or there?s obviously some kind of lack of respect for hygiene (that?s very important, for example, in acupuncture, with the needles that are used), or it simply doesn?t ?feel? right, then don?t continue.