Cycling Neck Pain Management
Tips & Tricks

Part 3 | SOOMOM'S PAIN MANAGEMENT FOR CYCLISTS SERIES

With EJ Macdonald | Exercise Scientist

Words : Scott Macallister & Charlie Coquillard / Pictures: Charlie Coquillard 

Introduction

Is there anything more uncomfortable while cycling than neck pain?

Unfortunately neck pain from cycling stems from the unnatural position and posture we adopt on the bike.

It often also results from a lack of strength endurance in the muscles required to maintain that position for an extended period.

Although there’s no impact or trauma directly on the neck, injuries can occur through overuse and be draining and severe.

Commonly extensor muscles deep in your neck become exhausted and tighten to compensate for a lack of strength.

As a result the trapezius muscles running from the shoulder to the base of the skull take on extra work and may develop pain from overuse.

Exercise scientist EJ MacDonald is here to help relieve your neck discomfort with the help of some simple exercises and stretches to incorporate into your daily routine.

What We’ll Cover in this Article

  • Most common causes of cycling neck pain
  • Stretches & Exercises for cycling neck pain (golden stretches & exercises)
  • How to avoid neck pain from cycling

Hey I'm E.J

I'm a former World championship athlete and an exercise Scientist from the university of Wollongong.

I am the currently working with cycling team : Team Bridgelane. 

I have teamed up with Soomom apparel to create a series of 3 episodes, targeted at preventing and treating common pain cyclists experience, namely knee, back and neck. 

By giving you access to a comprehensive series of exercise, I hope to keep you healthy on the bike!

Read more about how EJ trains and what it takes for female riders to reach the next level in their cycling in EJ's Tips for Female Cyclists. 

Most common causes of cycling neck pain

A common discomfort for cyclists is described as pain in the upper shoulders or base of the skull where your neck begins.

Both areas contain muscles responsible for holding the neck upright and for tilting your head to maintain sight forwards.

Due to the low profile of road bikes this extension, or craning of the neck, is exaggerated compared to commuter bikes or mountain bikes where the upper body position is upright.

More often than not it’s a result of a combination of issues, however there’s 2 main reasons for neck pain in cyclists that we will explore.

Those 2 causes are your bike fit and also insufficient strength in your erector muscles.

neck detail muscles cycling

The relationship between muscles running from your shoulders up to the base of the skull are the key drivers of neck pain for cyclists

Bike Fit & Equipment

First point of call when it comes to niggles on the bike is making sure you’re riding the correct frame size or position.

While a professional bike fit isn’t always necessary, there are a few quick fixes you can check at home with just a mirror or with the help of someone else.

A simple solution in the initial stages to reduce neck pain is to raise your handlebar height.

By raising your handlebars slightly and changing hand positions regularly (on the top hoods, in the drops, etc.), you give your neck a chance to rest and reset, rather than remaining in one fixed position.

It helps to be conscious of your arm position throughout your ride also.

A slight bend in the elbows can ease pressure and tension on the neck and shoulders.

With the correct bike position sorted it’s important to look at where you can build additional muscle strength to avoid neck pain.

This article will be focused on the exercises you can do to treat and recover from neck pain from cycling.

Incorrect bike fit can also affect other areas of the body, we have covered cycling knee pain and cycling back pain also as part of this series.

Insufficient Strength in Erector Muscles

While improving posture benefits cyclists, you may be stopped from improvement due to mobility and flexibility issues in your neck.

To resolve this you can build additional flexibility in these muscles that can help your posture.

Stretching is broken into two areas; pre-ride stretching to warm up muscles in the neck; and post-ride stretching, to relieve any tension that has built up.

We’ll touch on both of these later on in our analysis of treating neck pain.

Another symptom useful in determining the cause of pain is to identify when pain first starts on your ride.

 If you ride for 2 to 2.5 hours without pain, but start noticing it more on longer rides it’s probably the result of weak neck and shoulder muscles.

When deep neck muscles fatigue your trapezius muscles take up the slack.

After a period of time in a tense state the blood flow restricts and oxygen supply is limited.

By keeping these muscles strong it helps them to stay relaxed while supporting the head during longer rides.

Two areas we will address in prevention of neck pain are building strength and mobility in shoulder and neck muscles. 

Stretches & Exercises for cycling neck pain

Prevention is always better than the cure so it’s important to ensure you’ve covered all bases before jumping on the bike if you have recently experienced neck pain.

There’s two areas to consider when treating neck pain associated with cycling, those are a proper bike fit suitable to your body type, and an ongoing stretching program.

Bike Fit & Saddle Position

Note: When it comes to treatment and prevention of neck pain in cycling, it’s key to note that if there’s any sudden, sharp pain or pins and needles in your back region, it’s important to seek professional opinion.

Being such a crucial part of the human body the last thing anyone needs is aggravation or long-term issues arising from self-treatment or misdiagnosis.

There’s no use spending time exercising muscle groups to support your neck if you jump back onto a bike that isn’t setup for your personal requirements.

While there are many things you can do to set up your own bike correctly there is no doubt that having a second set of eyes from a professional can be the missing link.

We’ve mentioned bike setup, and it remains important, but another aspect that can be considered while cycling is how you sit on your saddle.

A second set of eyes from a professional will analyse your body position from all angles on your bike and adjust accordingly.

The trick is that changing one aspect can have unintended consequences on other body part positions and contact points. It's here that a professional will have the experience to manage a whole of body bike fit.

Once the bike fit is done the next step is building flexibility in the muscles supporting your neck.  

Stretching

There are three planes of motion we target when putting together a regular stretching routine for neck pain.

The areas that require stretching to reduce neck pain from cycling are;

  • Flexion & Extension
  • Side Flexion
  • Rotation 

Flexion & Extension

flexion extension neck exercise

Flexion

Standing in a relaxed, yet upright position, slowly tilt your head downwards and hold for 15-20 secomds.

You should feel the stretch along the back of your neck.

For a deeper stretch use 1-2 fingers on the upper back of your head, lightly apply pressure, however the aim is to not resist the pressure, rather let it help you relax further forward.


Extension

Similarly, in extension the aim is to tilt your head slowly upward towards the ceiling.

Try and keep your jaw closed, feeling the stretch along the sides of the front of your neck.

With this one, don’t apply pressure to your forehead, rather hold the centre of your chest with one hand and tilt against.

Side Flexion

side flexion neck exercise

Upper Trap

Tuck your chin and place one hand behind your back at 90 degrees.

Use the other hand to gently draw your head to the opposite side, feeling the stretch from each shoulder to each ear down the side.


Levator Scapulae

Similar to the upper trap stretch, this time we want to tilt our head slightly forward on an angle as it you were to sniff your armpit.

From here, use your hand to draw the head downward, feeling the stretch on the back and side of the neck, not the front.

Rotation

rotation neck exercise

With this one, it's just a gentle rotation of the head.

Keeping posture upright and shoulders facing forward, simply slowly turn your head as far to one side as you can, before moving to the other side and repeat.

The stretch should be in the front side of the neck stretching.

Being such a crucial part of the human body the last thing anyone needs is aggravation or long-term issues arising from self-treatment or misdiagnosis.

How to avoid neck pain from cycling

So how do we prevent neck pain from recurring after treatment?

With the correct bike fit and a neck stretching plan in place we add a program that builds strength in the neck.

The exercises to build neck strength for cyclists fall into two categories; 

  • Those that Build Neck Flexor Strength
  • Those that Improve Trapezius Mobility and Strength

Exercises to Build Neck Flexor Strength

To increase neck flexor strength we target the muscles that support the head when it’s in a forward position on the bike.

It’s important to build strength in this group, but also endurance, as they’ll support the neck for long periods of riding.

Some key muscle groups we need to target are the deep flexor muscles, levator scapulae and scalene muscles.

Four exercises to incorporate into a daily routine to build neck flexor strength are;

Neck Flexor Chin Tuck

neck flexor chin tuck exercise

Lying Neck Flexor Chin Tuck

lying neck flexor chin tuck exercise

LYING SIDE FLEXION OF THE NECK

lying side flexion neck

Wall Lean Neck Static Hold

wall lean neck static hold exercise

Exercises to Improve Trapezius Mobility and Strength

By increasing trapezius mobility and strength we are able to reduce tension that builds up from cycling.

As you bend forward in your lower back your neck extends higher to keep your eye level constant.

With improved mobility and strength in the trapezius you’ll be able to increase the amount of time spent in this position before tension builds up.

It will also reduce strain on the deep flexor muscles in the neck and reduce the risk of inflammation, sprains and fatigue.

Four key exercises to incorporate into a daily routine to strengthen the trapezius muscle group are;

Lying Figure Four Stretch

lying figure four stretch

Thoracic Rotation Stretch

thoracic rotation stretch

Handcuff Drill

handcuff drill exercise

Downward Dog (can incorporate push-up at the end)

donward dog exercise

Conclusion

The neck is an area of concern for cyclists as they spend so long sitting in a stationary position and arched over their handlebars.

Holding your neck in an unnatural elevated position as you stare ahead at the road in aero mode will put stress on weak muscles.

Make sure you take discomfort and pain seriously when it occurs and take the time to assess how you can avoid long term problems.

EJ’s tips provide a great background for cyclists experiencing this common issue, but if pain persists always consult a medical professional directly.

Keep your eye out for more articles in this series as we aim to help cyclists conquer their bodies so they can keep conquering those climbs.

Checkout the full blog series here covering the key areas of pain management for cyclists.

Take a look at Soomom's blogs or follow us on Instagram for more in depth cycling news and tips.

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