Cycling Should Never Be A Pain In The Neck!

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Learn strength, flexibility and riding tips to save your neck from trouble while aero.

Whether you are training for the Olympic Trials, World-Class competitions, or if you are an endurance cyclist or someone who simply enjoys cycling, neck pain can keep you off the road and even end your ability to ride. That doesn’t need to ever happen to you!

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been riding aero the entire race, perhaps on target for a PR when suddenly your neck feels like it can’t support your head. Soon, you can hardly hold your head up to see the road. This condition is called “Shermer’s Neck,” which was named after Michael Shermer, a 1983 RAAM competitor who was the first person to have this situation happen to him.

More than any other sport, the position of cycling is a primary cause of contracted muscles in the back of the neck. In the essential aerodynamic position, that posture often severely contorts the body with the first indication being neck pain. Aero set ups place your head in a tilted back posture in order to see the road. Contracting muscles for the duration of the ride elicits muscle responses that cause all of the posterior neck muscles to shorten.

What is happening? You drop your head in a vain attempt to stretch out your neck muscles, but that causes a pain to shoot around your shoulders and neck. As you become occupied with the agony at hand, your pace beings to drop. The complex bundle of muscles of the neck and shoulders that connect your upper back with your head have gone into a state of spasm. The same effect, sometimes exasperated by a chemical imbalance, can happen to most any muscle group in our body. The delicate balance of biomechanical adaptability and aerodynamic efficiency has just been tilted and the body doesn’t really care if it happens during your race.

So, what do you do? You do what every dedicated athlete would do under these conditions -- you ignore it and keep racing. This is the worst time to confront such performance impeding problems, but the body has it’s own agenda for such timing. As soon as you’ve had a chance to reflect on your physical limitations, it’s time to give thought to some therapeutic cures.

First, consider the irony of the situation. The aerodynamic position that you worked so hard to achieve and then maintain has now become a catch-22. With no preconceived plan for skeletal and muscular stabilization as part of your training, you simply went full aero, and now your neck muscles have begun to shorten, placing severe pressure on your cervical vertebrae and spinal cord.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the well-known ultracyclists who have had to rely on a strange-looking contraption to hold their head up while they continue to compete.

Prevention is always better than a “cure,” (or in this case, a crutch).

Consistent, deep, focused, self-treatments for all of your neck muscles before they become weakened from the repetitive strain, will work to prevent this situation from happening to you on your next endurance ride.

Here are some logical solutions:

Prioritizing Solutions First, relax the muscles along the skull line (occipital ridge) by first massaging them. There are four key muscles causing neck pain for cyclists: the levator scapulae, trapezius, splenius capitis and splenius cervicis. These muscles lift your shoulders up as you are in the aerodynamic position, laterally extend the neck, rotate and tilt the head back. If you are standing up straight, the muscles would be pulling your head back so you could look up to the ceiling. A similar action occurs so you can look straight ahead when you are in the aero position.

If you are correctly positioned, body balanced with correct joint angles, muscles tension will remain normal and not become acute, but this is impossible while in aero. Even while riding you need to do some self-treatments that will prevent the negative effects of muscle tension. Essentially we are trying to prevent the contracting and shortening of the neck muscles in an unnatural manner while you are trying to cheat the wind. 

Rapid head and eye movement is critical for maneuvering in traffic. When you are making a left hand turn for example, and your neck is tight, it may be hard to turn your head and maintain precise control of the bike. To turn your head to the left you need to contract the trapezius muscle on the left and stretch the trapezius muscle on the right. If the stretching muscle is held tight because of muscle spasms, you can’t turn your head to the left. We have seen thousands of clients whose pain was the result of tight muscles. To release tension in the muscle you need to think about which muscle you should be stretching and which muscle you should be contracting, then put direct pressure on the stretching muscle.

Begin by pressing your fingertips deeply into the muscles of your posterior shoulder, starting as shown in the picture, and then moving your pressure to cover your entire shoulder and moving up toward your neck. Hold each point for 15 seconds.

Many of the key points of bike positioning are now common knowledge, and while the science continues to evolve, it is essential that we consider muscular stabilization and body work into the mix. Perhaps you’ve already come to realize the essential role of massage therapy on a regular basis. Having your muscles relaxed, stretched and rejuvenated, means they will stay at peak performance, but in the real world, making this happen with the necessary regularity may be difficult. Fortunately, it is easy to self-treat the muscles causing neck pain.

The occiput (skull) and back of your neck are the origin of the muscles of your upper back. Most of the muscles that originate here connect your shoulders and upper back. Tightness is the cause for spasms in the neck. It is essential to treat each of the shoulder and upper back muscles, not only to relieve neck pain, but more importantly to prevent such pain in the first place. Due to the complexity of the muscles in the back of your neck, we will focus on a broad array of self-treatments. You can learn many more techniques that will release tension in your neck, shoulders, low back, and the rest of your body by going to http://www.FlexibleAthlete.com. With the following self-treatments, effectiveness starts by deeply massaging the muscles by hand. Relax, and breath deeply to promote maximum blood flow while bending your head toward your shoulder until you feel the muscle stretch.

Begin working both sides of your neck, systematically pressing into the muscle on one side with the opposite hand, then the other side. As noted, place the fingers on the muscles just to the side of your cervical vertebrae. If you feel tightness deeply massage those neck muscles, keeping the movement going up and down, not side to side. You can also use your same-side hand to press into your neck if this is more convenient, especially if you are applying the pressure while you are riding.

Working from your skull down to your shoulder, start next to your spine, then about 1” to the side. If the line feels knotted, this is probably a tight muscle. Your goal is to create a smooth muscle line. The action should include gradually increased pressure, working the belly of the muscle. If you focus your attention on the muscles to the side of the cervical vertebrea, you can treat four of the important muscles of the neck: upper trapezius, levator scapulae, splenius capitis and splenius cervicus.

Grab the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles by tilting your head back, relaxing and putting your fingertips directly over your spine. Put your thumb about 2” out from the spine, scoop in with your thumb to push the muscles together. In between you will feel a tight rope of muscle. Grip it as firmly as you can.

For both techniques, to increase the stretch of the muscles, slowly drop your head toward your chest and slightly turn your chin toward your opposite shoulder while holding the muscle. Hold the stretch 10-15 seconds working up to 45 seconds. After the stretch, shake out your shoulders and neck.

The muscles of the upper back and neck provide the primary support to the neck. Pain and occasional tension headaches are a result of tight overworked muscles in one or both areas. If you have experienced all or some of the symptoms described here, these self-treatments may be the ounce of prevention that you need to allow you to return your attention to the art of going fast.




 © 2003; Revised 2018


Authors:

Julie Donnelly, LMT, is an internationally respected expert in the treatment of chronic pain and sports injuries. She is the developer of the Julstro Self-Treatment techniques and is the author of several books including The Pain-Free Triathlete, The Pain-Free Athlete, and Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living, as well as a unique safe-stretching program called Focused Flexibility Training. Julie has been teaching the Julstro System and working with Olympic and World-Class athletes since 1989. For information visit: http://www.FlexibleAthlete.com.

John Howard is the world’s leading bike fit specialist with more than 40 years experience in his field. USA Cycling Hall of Fame, Ironman winner, elite and masters multi-national champion, he directs therapeutic practitioners in multisports and cycling. http://www.JohnHowardSports.com

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date: January 31, 2018

Team BT