Cycling is supposed to be fun, not painful. For many cyclists, however, biking produces pain. The repetitive stresses and symmetrical motions involved in biking can cause muscle and joint pain in riders of all skill and activity levels.
Neck pain resulting from cycling goes away typically after 2 weeks of riding on a regular basis. If the pain is excessive or if it persists, it may be a sign of improper handlebar adjustment or improper sitting position or wrong saddle type for the type of riding you do.
In almost all cases, these muscle and joint pains can be reduced or eliminated with some adjustments to the bike, some stretches, and some other simple tweaks. Let’s take a quick look at 5 things you can do to help prevent and alleviate cycling-related neck pain so that you can keep cycling fun and pain-free.
Get The Right Type of Bike
Most of the causes of neck pain involve a mismatch, and this primary cause is no exception.
Excessive vibrations from riding a stiff bike on a rough surface can contribute to all sorts of cycling issues, including neck pain.
Similarly, using a road bike with aggressive geometry for a quick cruise around town or trying to get low and aerodynamic on a cruiser puts a lot of strain on your body without a lot of upsides.
It’s totally fine (and fun!) to use a bike for an atypical purpose every once in a while, but if you find that most of the riding you do doesn’t match the specialization of your bike, it might be time to look for a bike that better fits your style of riding.
Sit In The Proper Position
If you’re not sitting on your bike right, you’ll quickly run into all sorts of problems.
You generally want to sit somewhat far back on the saddle, with the nose serving to add stability. There’s a great deal of variance between bike seats, riders’ bodies, and how flexible riders are, however, so this can get complicated.
The bottom line here is that you want to make sure you’re sitting on your seat in a consistent way that’s close to how you’re supposed to sit on the seat.
Don’t worry about getting it perfect. If your weight is on the front third of the saddle or if you’re slipping off the back, however, you probably need to change the seat on your bike or ride a different style of bike altogether.
Adjust Your Seat
If it’s not caused by vibration, neck pain in cyclists tends to be caused by one of two issues.
Either too much weight is placed on the rider’s arms, causing stress on the neck and shoulders that leads to muscular neck pain, or the neck is stuck in a position that’s rotated too far upwards for too long, causing joint pain.
Changing where you sit can have a big impact on the muscular type of pain.
In most cases, getting rid of neck pain starts with adjusting your saddle. Make sure the saddle is pitched in a way that you don’t slide forward or backward when you’re sitting, as you’ll have to compensate for this slide by putting more weight on your hands. You want your pelvis to be stable as you ride.
You can usually move bike seats forward and backward in addition to up and down. Start with the saddle at a position where your knee is over the pedal during your downstroke and wiggle until you’re seated comfortably with very little weight on your hands.
If your seat is too far back, you’ll feel that your hamstrings are doing a lot of work and you won’t get a good stomp on the pedals during your downstroke. If your seat is too far forward, you’ll feel like your pedal stroke is choppy and uncontrolled, and you won’t feel your hamstrings doing a lot of work.
In terms of height, start by lowering your saddle. Most riders put their seats a bit higher than is ideal from a body mechanics perspective.
You want to lower your seat significantly then slowly raise it until your pedal stroke feels a bit choppy. Once you hit this point, lower your seat slightly. As long as pedaling is comfortable and smooth at this seat height, it’s probably perfect.
Adjust your cleats
It’s worth noting very briefly that if you’re on a bike with clipless pedals, the position of your pedals on your cleats is also worth examining at this stage.
Most cleats are too far forward on the shoe from a mechanical perspective, so try pulling your cleats as far back as they can go and then seeing how things feel. Too far forward and you get the same lack of hamstring control on the bottom of your strokes that you’d get from a high seat.
This tends to tip you forward as you ride and put pressure on your hands, causing neck pain. Find a cleat position that’s behind the ball of your foot (usually by a fair bit) that keeps you comfortable and in control.
Changing any of the variables with your bike’s configuration often means that you’ll have to re-check other parts. As you change things, be sure to go back and check all of the adjustments you’ve done previously to make sure the new configuration hasn’t thrown anything out of whack!
Adjust Your Handlebar Position
The position of your handlebars can cause neck pain in one of several ways. First, your wrists might be tilted or rotated in order to reach the controls, causing muscle pain in the neck and shoulders.
If this is caused due to your handlebars being too wide (which is a very common issue), you might want to consider a narrower set of bars. If it’s due to your wrists tilting up or down, however, you can often just tilt your handlebars to put the controls at a more comfortable angle.
Second, your handlebars might be too close or too far from your shoulders. If they’re too far, you’ll stretch to reach them. If they’re too close, you’ll probably put too much weight on your hands reflexively.
Have someone look at your shoulders while you ride to get a feel for their position. If they extend forwards while you ride you’ll want to move your handlebars back. If they ride up, your bars are too high. Look for a handlebar position that allows your elbows to bend slightly while encouraging you to put as much weight as possible on your lower body instead of your hands.
Finally, if your handlebars are very low, you might have to crane your neck at too steep of an angle. Leaving your neck at a steep upwards tilt for long periods of time quickly leads to joint pain.
A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to angle your neck upward an additional twenty to thirty degrees from your normal riding position. If this isn’t possible, you probably need to raise your handlebars, even if it means being less aerodynamic.
Do Some Stretches
Exercises and stretches can go a long way towards alleviating neck pain, especially in conjunction with the ideas above.
The quickest stretching routine involves slowly exploring the range of motion on your neck and holding the extremes. Bend forward, hold for a few seconds, then bend to either side, hold for a few seconds, then twist each way and hold for a few seconds. You should feel a gentle stretch.
One of the most commonly recommended exercises is something called a “chin tuck.” To execute a chin tuck, put your fingers on your chin and gently try to push it backward. Using your neck, move your head in this direction to the limit of its motion. Repeat several times.
This exercise serves to work the muscles that oppose the muscles that push your head forward, helping you maintain balance.
Physiotherapists also commonly recommend upper back exercises to help alleviate neck pain. Try kneeling in front of a chair and tilting your pelvis so you can use your hands to put your body weight on the chair.
Using your upper back, straighten your upper body, then relax it and let your back bend forward, bringing your belly towards the chair. Repeat several times, ideally a couple of times per week.
Alleviating Cycling-Related Neck Pain
Cycling shouldn’t be painful.
If you’re experiencing neck pain because of your bike rides, consider the tips above to try to remove the source of the pain or alleviate it through stretching and exercise. Every rider is different, and bikes aren’t necessarily made to reflect the unique nature of humans.
Taking a bit of time to consider how you’re using your bike, how you’re sitting, and how things are adjusted can go a long way towards reducing your neck pain. Once you’ve removed the source, a bit of stretching and exercise can make that pain much more manageable and keep cycling fun,