Do you find yourself dealing with a stiff, painful neck after a long ride? Read through this article on what causes neck pain while cycling and learn 5 things to avoid.
It can be really frustrating to constantly find yourself dealing with neck pain from cycling. Especially if you really enjoy long rides.
Not only does neck pain make it harder to further train and get better at the sport, but it can also make your day-to-day activities more difficult.
Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can cause neck pain while cycling. In this article, we'll cover what you should avoid doing and simple adjustments you can make to help to prevent future pain.
Why does cycling hurt my neck?
The main causes of neck pain while cycling are poor position while riding and weak neck and shoulder muscles. Below we’ll discuss situations that cause poor positioning, the effects of weak muscles, and what you can do about them.
1.) Poor posture
The first culprit of neck pain while cycling is poor posture and positioning on the bike. If you have poor posture while riding, you may start to experience pain in the neck from looking up, or hyperextending your neck, for long periods of time.
When held in a poor position for too long, the muscles and joints in the neck work overtime trying to support your head.
Many cyclists create this problem by leaning their torso too far forward while riding. This forces them to tilt their head way back to continue to look up and watch the road.
It might not feel uncomfortable at first, but staying in that position for hours on a long ride can lead to pain, stiffness, and injury.
To help avoid this, be sure to keep good posture and positioning while riding. The Cleveland Clinic recommends you "Pull your stomach in toward your lower back, elongate your torso, slide the shoulder blades down your upper back and keep your chest slightly lifted while riding. Keep your chin tucked in and stretch your neck during relaxed parts of your ride."
2.) Incorrect handlebar position
Another cause of neck pain while riding is incorrect handlebar position. If your handlebars are too high they can cause excessive reach. If they're too low, it causes excessive drop.
Both of these positions can force your neck into a hyperextended position for long bike rides.
Another problem can also come from having the handlebars too far apart. When they are too far apart, you have more stress and strain on your shoulders and they can tire out quickly.
The pain then radiates into your neck over time.
A good fix for both of these problems is to make sure your bike is properly fitted for you. This will ensure that your handlebars are at the correct height and distance.
3.) Incorrect saddle position
Another reason you might end up riding in a poor position and experience neck pain is from an incorrect saddle position. According to Cycling Weekly here are some possible ways an incorrectly positioned saddle can cause neck pain:
- A saddle titled too nose down can cause you to slide forward on your saddle and place more weight on your hands as you try to support yourself.
- A saddle placed too far forward can change the weight balance of the bike and overload the font, again putting more weight on your hands.
- Having a saddle titled nose up can push your pelvis into posterior tilt which can increase spinal flexion causing you to over-reach to access the hoods.
All of these positions cause too much weight to be on the hands and arms. This will cause the rider to lean too far forward and hyperextend the neck while riding.
Just like with the handlebars, making sure your bike is fitted properly will help to alleviate these issues.
4.) Poorly fitted helmet or eyeglasses
The common cause of neck pain while riding is wearing a poorly fitted helmet or eyeglasses. A poorly fitted helmet can cause neck pain by sitting too low in the front.
This causes the rider to further extend their head up to clearly see the road. The same is true for ill-fitting eyeglasses.
If they're too loose they can start to slide down the nose. This will cause the rider to tilt their head up in that same hyperextended position to allow them to see clearly through the glasses.
To avoid this problem, make sure your helmet and glasses fit properly.
5.) Weak muscles in the neck and shoulder
The final cause of neck pain while riding is having weak muscles in your neck and shoulders. When the muscles in your neck and shoulders are weak, they make it a lot more difficult to hold a good posture while riding.
This can cause you to start to slump forward or even hunch over. This then creates that same pressure and strain on your neck that we've been talking about.
This is why it's so important for cyclists to cross-train with strength training. Not only does it help improve your power and performance on the bike, but it helps strengthen the muscles needed for good posture while riding.
You can include some exercises specifically for your neck and shoulders in your normal strength training routine.
How do I strengthen my neck for cycling?
You can help strengthen the muscles in your neck and shoulders by doing some extra stretches and exercises a few times a week. Here are some exercises recommended by Rausch Physical Therapy:
Pec stretch: Stand in a doorway and put your arms out to either side and slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch through the front of your chest into your armpit. Play with the height of your arms above and below your shoulders to get the various fibers of the muscle. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec each.
Upper Trap/Scalene: Sitting in a chair, grab the bottom of the chair and side-bend away from that side. Look up for a scalene stretch and look down for an upper trap stretch. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec each side.
Neck Extensors: While sitting, gently pull the back of your head forward while gently pushing in on your chin till you feel a stretch just at the base of your skull. Don’t crank on this one, take it easy on your jaw, it should be a fairly gentle stretch. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec.
Pec Release: Take a tennis or lacrosse ball and place it between your chest, near the front of your armpit, and the wall. Roll the ball around until you find any tender spots and spend about 10-20 sec massaging that area. Spend about 1 min on each side.
Upper Trap Release: Place a tennis or lacrosse ball in a pillowcase and lean against a wall with the ball anywhere between your shoulder blade and spine up through the base of your neck. Massage out any tender or sore spots for about 10-20 sec per area; spend approximately 1 min on each side.
Foam Roll Extensions: In order to take the strain off of the joints of your neck make sure your upper back can move well. Lie across a foam roller on your back with your arms supporting your head and your hips on the ground and lean back to extend your upper back. Start about halfway up your back and continue up until just short of your neck. Do about 5 extensions at each spot moving the foam roller up about an inch each time.
Towel Rotations: Wrap a small hand towel or pillowcase around the back of your neck and grab the ends with both hands. Pull down to anchor the towel with one hand and pull the towel across your chin as you rotate your head. When you get to the end of your range of motion, add a little bit of pressure from the towel to help stretch into the movement.
Thread the needle: Begin on the ground on your hands and knees. Place a foam roll on the outside of one arm. Once there, reach with the arm furthest away from the foam roll under the body to make contact on top of the foam roller and roll through, rotating the upper spine.
Chin Tucks: Begin by lying flat on your back with a soft pillow under your head. First gently press the back of your head into the pillow as you tuck your chin in, as if you’re making a double chin, hold for 10 seconds then relax, repeat 10-20 times. If this is easy, practice against a wall while doing a wall sit.
I’s, T’s, and Y’s: Lying flat on your stomach, across a swiss ball or the end of a bed or couch, place your hands at your side (I), out to the side at shoulder height with thumbs up (T), or above your head and out to the side (Y). The focus of the movement is to move your shoulder blades not so much your arms, squeeze your shoulder blades together and squeeze for 10-15 seconds and relax, repeat 10-20x in each position. The Y’s will be the hardest so start with fewer reps here and advance as it becomes easier. While lying on your stomach focus on good posture through your entire spine all the way to the top of your head.
Neck pain doesn't have to be a part of your cycling experience. By maintaining good posture, getting your bike properly fitted, and ensuring a strong neck and core you can avoid dealing with the painful aftereffects of a long ride.
If you're already experiencing neck pain, be sure to pinpoint the cause to prevent further injury and do some of the stretches and exercises listed above to help your neck as it recovers.
Don't let neck pain keep you from enjoying a sport you love.