Many cyclists struggle with neck, shoulder, and upper back pain.
This shouldn’t be a surprise because the cycling posture shifts your head forward, and for every 2-3cm your head slips forward, the load on your neck and shoulder muscles DOUBLE causing muscle tension, headaches, and back pain.
And it’s all caused by gravity; the very force that cyclists use and enjoy when coasting down hills is the same force you have to overcome to hold yourself physically upright. Sticking your head forward multiples the weight of your head from 4 to 5kg up to a massive 15 to 20kg, which is then carried by your muscles for the entire ride.
Fortunately you can make some small adjustments to lessen the gravity fed demons. These include:
- ‘Breathing 101’ – understanding ‘how to breath’ can protect your neck and shoulder muscles,
- REFRESHERS – while ‘on the bike’ use little exercises or micro-breaks to ease muscle tension,
- RECOVERY – ‘after the ride’ routines to quickly settle any tension, and
- PREVENTION – ‘off the bike’ steps to avoid future problems by improving strength, flexibility and coordination.
You can also call on the Professionals. There is the all-important Bike Setup, where you are properly fitted, and the option of some care or advice from a Health Professional who has experience and an understanding of the common problems that afflict cyclists.
This article focuses on those first two ‘on the bike’ topics while a second article will look at Recovery and Prevention.
- ‘Breathing 101’
The most basic piece of riding advice about breathing is to relax your shoulders and let your diaphragm muscle draw in air and send it down low and into your abdomen.
The physical act of breathing also has a strong effect on posture and spinal stability. To pedal harder many cyclists will brace to lock themselves in place on the bike. Some do that by pulling in their stomach and tightening everything up. This ‘locked posture’ limits how the diaphragm muscle works because the only place left for incoming air is high into the chest. This ‘high’ or ‘chest breathing’ style redirects postural muscles to takeover the role of breathing, doing work those muscles aren’t designed to do.
You might call upon that extra muscle tension to achieve stability for a sudden short sprint but only if it is brief. Problems are created when that extra tension gets added on top of already over worked postural muscles having to manage the magnified load of your head held out in front of your body.
It may sound like a contradiction; that cyclists should ‘brace‘ themselves so that they can pedal smoothly with power yet at the same time ‘breathe into their abdomen’. It is actually a subtle technique issue. Ideally when you ‘brace‘ you should ‘push your abdomen slightly outwards‘ rather than pulling your belly button in. Then when you ‘breathe’ allow your ‘abdomen and sides to continue to expand out slightly’.
When you ‘brace’ you use the same muscles involved with coughing except that when ‘bracing’ you continue ‘holding’ that gentle pushing outwards feeling so that the increase in abdominal pressure provides spinal stability. The trick is to allow enough give in the system so that you can still breathe low and deep and feel your lower ribs, back and abdomen expand outwards during inhalation. It is small difference but one that is very important.
I might add that the issue of bracing is controversial among health professionals. There are different schools of thought about the benefits of pulling in or pushing out your belly for spinal stability. Whatever method you choose just make sure that you can still breath low into your abdomen – if you can’t then in my experience you are likely to develop postural problems.
These are soothing stretches and movements that allow your muscles to temporarily relax while riding. When your muscles are tense the blood flow gets reduced and muscles tire and become congested with waste products. Gentle movement improves circulation and relieves that tired discomfort.
Simple REFRESHERS include regularly and gently moving and rolling your shoulders while riding. Obviously while doing these stay safe and alert for changes in road conditions.
Start by gently raising your shoulders towards your ears and slowly lower them as you exhale. Take a few breaths where you consciously draw air into your lower abdomen, sides and lower back. With your hands on the hoods gently arch your upper back and then let your chest drop forward so that your spine gently lengthens.
Add some easy neck bends where you keep your chin tucked in and then tilt your ear towards one and then the other shoulder 2-3 times. Keep your eyes looking ahead and chin down, now gently turn your head from side to side.
And remember your hands, when safe to do so release one hand and gently spread your fingers and stretch your arm down alongside your body. Exhale slowly when your hands are turned out and fingers spread. And again, when safe to do so, you might place one hand behind your head and turn the shoulder out so that you open the upper chest. Repeat regularly each side.
Make a habit of changing your position; on the hoods, tops and drops, and occasionally stand while riding.
Part 2 will cover some of the Recover & Prevention strategies to help keep you comfortable on the bike.