Cycling is not only a healthier and traffic-free way to go from place to place, but an awesome way to boost aerobic fitness and muscular strength. Many athletes cycle as part of a cross-training program to recover from injuries or avoid them, since cycling is relatively low-impact on your joints. While cycling strengthens your legs and your heart in a low-impact way, cyclists can still suffer pains and injuries stemming from causes such as improper bike fit, poor posture, pre-existing muscular imbalances, or overtraining. One of the top complaints among cyclists is neck pain. Overtraining, cycling with improper posture, or cycling with incorrect bike setup are usually to blame for neck pain. If your muscles are not properly trained and adjusted to the postural position of cycling, increasing the duration of your rides too soon can cause neck stiffness that can lead to pain or injury. Likewise, if you are biking with poor posture or improper bike setup, your neck can become hyperextended and therefore lead to pain or injury. So, before you hop back on the bike, do your neck a favor by following these five tips to prevent neck pain:
The best and easiest way to make sure your bike is fitted correctly is to take it to a local shop to have it assessed. An expert can work with you to analyze your posture on the bike and make suggestions regarding the best fit for your body type. While seeing a professional fitter typically costs between $100-$200, this service may prevent you from spending much more on the medical bills associated with an injury caused by improper bike fit. If you cannot afford a fitting or access a local bike shop, here are a few tips for assessing the fit of the bike yourself.
Typically, when standing over your bike that has a horizontal top tube, you should have about one to two inches of clearance between your crotch and the top tube. If the top tube is angled diagonally, you should have at least two inches of clearance between your crotch and the top tube.
Adjust the height of your bike’s saddle so that your knees are completely straight at the bottom of each pedal stroke when pedaling backwards. If your hips are moving back and forth, the seat is too high.
You should be able to comfortably reach the handlebars with slightly bent arms without needing to move forward or back on the saddle. Your bike should fit you in a way that feels comfortable to ride. Continue to make small adjustments in your bike’s fit if you feel any strain or negative impact on your cycling posture.
According to a recent scientific study, neck pain in cyclists is often caused by improper cycling posture (Teyeme et al., 2019). One of the most common posture mistakes is cycling with your arms locked straight, rather than slightly bending the arms. Keeping the arms straight will add extra tension to the shoulder and neck. If you cannot bend your arms slightly, you should bring your handlebar closer towards your body so that you can maintain a slight bend in the arms while cycling. If you have aerobars, you should have your elbows at a right angle and your elbows should be directly below your shoulders. The positioning of your back is also key to preventing pain in your neck. Your back should feel free of tension and should be in a neutral position. Avoid rounding your spine or raising your shoulders too high so that your back is too straight. The proper position should feel comfortable with an engaged core (yes—cycling does work the core if you’re aspiring for 6-pack abs!). Finally, your knees should stay in line with the ball of your foot while you pedal. Feel your tensions melt away as you adjust your posture for decreased injury risk and increased power.
Sure, cycling is much lower-impact than many other sports, but all of those vibrations you feel while riding can take a toll on your neck. Make sure you eliminate shock with the proper gear and attire. Many cyclers wear affordable cycling gloves to help prevent vibrations from traveling up their hands to the top portion of their bodies, such as the neck. Aerobar pads serve the same function for the arms. Padded bike shorts are also a great way to reduce vibrations traveling up your body during long bike rides. A pair of padded shorts will help you stay comfortable throughout your ride. Cyclists can occasionally forget the importance of proper footwear. Even though your feet may not be pounding the ground, they are absorbing quite a bit of shock during a bike ride. It is smart to find a good pair of cycling shoes and to replace the insoles of the shoes when they feel worn. If you have the budget for it, make as much of your bike carbon fiber as possible for the smoothest ride. If you can't afford a carbon frame, look at prices for a carbon seat post and stem - these will absorb the shock before it gets to your body from the seat post and the handlebars. Of course, the first thing that touches the ground while you are cycling is your tires. If your tires are very thin, your body will be absorbing more shock since the point of contact is more concentrated. This might take some getting used to, if you are moving from a mountain bike to a road bike. Still, never ride with underinflated tires for comfort reasons. You're much more likely to get a flat and put yourself in danger.
Stretching and warming up your neck before riding (and throughout the day) will prevent your neck from stiffening up during your ride. Here are three simple neck warm-ups that you can do almost anywhere:
Stand upright in good posture (with feet shoulder-width apart). Use your neck muscles to push your chin slightly backwards, as if making a double chin. Keeping this position, slowly lower your head so that your chin is pointing toward the top of your chest. Hold for ten seconds and slowly return to the starting position. Once in starting position, slowly lift your chin towards the ceiling. Hold this for ten seconds and slowly return to starting position. Repeat this exercise 3-5 times.
Stand upright in good posture (with feet shoulder-width apart). Use your neck muscles to push your chin slightly backwards, as if making a double chin. Keeping this position, slowly turn your head to the right. Hold for a couple of seconds and slowly return to starting position. Then, slowly turn your head to the left. Hold for a couple of seconds and slowly return to starting position. Repeat this exercise 5-10 times.
Stand upright in good posture (with feet shoulder-width apart). Use your neck muscles to push your chin slightly backwards, as if making a double chin. Hold this position for ten seconds. Repeat this exercise 5-10 times.
As with all injury prevention methods, ensuring strength and muscular balance is vital to avoiding pain and problems. Some of the best exercises to perform as a cyclist will target your back, upper back, chest, core, shoulder, and neck muscles. These strengthening exercises, combined with the tips above, will scare the neck pain away. With all strengthening exercises, start with weights that will challenge your muscles but that you can work with comfortably. Increase the weight and repetitions slowly, after your body has adjusted to the routine.
It’s all in the name: the dumbbell shoulder press will increase your shoulder strength, specifically targeting your trapezius, lateral deltoid, upper pectorals, and triceps brachii, so that you can build a stable and strong base for your neck. Sit in proper sitting posture on a stability ball, holding the dumbbells at shoulder-height with arms bent and palms facing opposite of your body. Raise the dumbbells up until your arms are straight. Then, lower your arms to the starting position. Start with three sets of ten.
Another great shoulder exercise, the kettlebell row will strengthen other parts of the shoulder that were missed in the dumbbell shoulder press. Keeping feet shoulder width apart and the natural curve in your spine, squat down and pick up the kettlebell with both hands, with palms facing your body. Next, pull your hands towards your chest, raising your elbows towards the ceiling. Return to the starting position. Start with three sets of ten.
According to Shannon Sovndal, author of Cycling Anatomy, strengthening your rotator cuff is one of the best ways that a cyclist can avoid pain while also boosting power and cycling performance. She recommends the “around the world weight plate” exercise as an excellent way to increase your rotator cuff strength, as well as your chest and core muscles. Stand in good posture with feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight plate in front of your body with both hands (palms parallel to each other as they grasp the plate). Next, slowly rotate the weight above your head in a circular motion. When you have rotated the plate around 360 degrees, return to the starting position and then repeat this exercise in the opposite direction. Start with two minutes of this exercise.
We commend your proactiveness by following these tips to avoid neck pain, which can be a real nuisance and lead to other injuries once it begins. Now that you have the proper posture and bike setup in addition to some great gear, strengthened muscles, and warmed-up neck, you are ready to enjoy an awesome and comfortable ride!
About the Author: Dr. Scott Gray is founder of Back In Motion Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, SW Florida’s leading physical therapy clinic for orthopedic, sport, and spine injuries, and BIM Fitness and Performance, Personal Training Studio and Sports Performance Training Facility. He is a published author of two best selling books on Amazon and international presenter on the topics of physical therapy. He is the inventor of a renowned treatment called the Gray Method TM. In addition to the clinic in Ft. Myers, he is the lead physical therapist for the Mountain Dew Tour.