Neck pain is one of the most common complaints from cyclists. Hours spent hunched over the handle bars, in a fixed, bent forward position can cause significant muscular imbalance, as the body starts to mould into this posture. Over time, certain muscles tighten, while others become weak and long. In fact, according to one study from the journal of Sport Medicine1, as many as 85% of cycling injuries are non-traumatic (i.e. not caused by a fall or crash) in nature, with neck and shoulder pain being one of the most prevalent areas for injury.
There are two main reasons for cycling neck pain; poor ergonomic bike set-up and poor posture while on the bike. I would always recommend cyclists to have a professional bike fit and to spend some time on a ride reviewing their body position. Focussing on these five postural tips while out on a long ride can be the difference between painful or non-painful neck.
- Relax your neck and shoulders to free up your head
- Bend your elbows so that your arms, not your neck, absorb any pot hole impact
- Elongate your torso
- Engage your abdominal muscles
- Track your knee over the ball of your foot
However, even with a perfect bike set-up and acute postural awareness it is still well worth spending time taking care of your neck and shoulders. Here are my five favourite stretches and mobilisations to help relieve neck tightness.
The below stretches and mobilisations are intended to loosen a tight or stiff neck. They are not designed to treat or diagnose injuries. If you have experienced a crash or have chronic neck pain please seek medical advice before starting an exercise programme.
Standing Half Neck Circles
Sit on a chair with your feet placed firmly on the floor about hip width apart. Elongate your spine into a good upright position with your shoulders drawn back and your chest lifted. Lightly engage your stomach.
Maintaining your spinal position, drop your chin down towards your chest. Then slowly rotate your head to look over your right shoulder. Return your head back to your chest, before moving the neck to look over your left shoulder.
Continue rotating your neck looking over one shoulder, then the other. Complete this mobilisation in time with your breathing.
Aim for 5 repetitions to each side.
Please stop if you feel dizzy or any discomfort in your neck.
Foam Roller Cervical Extensions
Place the foam roller on the floor. Lie on the foam roller so that it runs up your spine to the bottom of your neck. Your legs should be bent with your feet positioned firmly on the floor, hip width apart.
Place both hands either side of your head with your elbows pointed up towards the ceiling.
It is very important that you maintain a neutral neck position so please drop your chin slightly towards your chest. If you find this position difficult to maintain place a tennis ball between your chin and chest.
Allow gravity to draw your upper back, neck and head towards the floor, mobilising and extending your thoracic spine. Hold for 10-20s before carefully sliding your body to a new position on the roller about 2-3cm up.
Repeat holding for 10-20s at 3 different starting positions on the foam roller.
Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor about hip width apart. You can also complete this exercise standing. Draw your body into a good upright position with your shoulders lowered away from your ears, your shoulder blades draw together and your chest lifted.
Gently push the fingertips of your right hand into the muscle just above your left collarbone. Feel for the belly of this scalene muscle and reinforce your right hand with the weight of your left. Your teeth should remain in light contact throughout this stretch, with your tongue at rest on the roof of your mouth.
Ensure you do not feel a pulse under your fingers or pain down the arm. If you do, please remove your fingers and adjust the position of your fingers.
Maintaining the pressure with your hands, rotate your head to look over your right shoulder, tilt your head slightly backwards and lift the chin upwards. You should feel a light stretch along the front of your neck to the left side.
To increase the intensity of this stretch, jut your jaw forward crossing the lower teeth under the upper teeth.
Hold the stretch for 30-60s on each side.
Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place a foam roller just below the base of your shoulder blades.
Position your hands behind your head to support the weight of your head. Your neck should stay in a neutral position throughout this exercise, so be careful to keep your chin 2-3 inches from your chest.
Engage your abdominals and gentle posteriorly rotate your pelvis.
From here, take a deep breath in, and slowly extend your upper back over the foam roller and then exhale as you reach the bottom of the range of movement.
Relax for 5-10 seconds focusing on stretching out the back where it makes contact with the foam roller.
Breathe in again and hold the breath as you rise, then roll down the roller one vertebrae (about 1-2cm) and then repeat until you come to the top of the shoulder blades, with the roller just under your armpit.
Support the head throughout, and ensure that you roll sideways when you have finished rather than getting up forwards.
Lie on your back. Lift your legs into the air, so that your knees are closer in towards your body than your hips. At this point your pelvis should be lifted from the floor so that the base of your bottom is raised and your sacrum and lower back should be drilled into the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles.
Flex your ankles, slightly rotating the feet towards each other and extend your toes.
Take your arms out to your side so your hands are just above your shoulders.
Place a complete extension in your elbow, wrists & fingers.
Rotate your head, slightly dropping your chin towards your chest. You should feel an elongation in the back of your neck. As you complete this movement the back of the head should slightly lift off the floor.
Keep your eyes looking at your pelvis.
Strongly push your arms away from your body, pushing the heel of your hands out to your side. At the same time elongate your spine, to do this drive your bottom away from the top of your head.
Hold for 30 seconds, breathing throughout.
Relax for 30s before repeating 3 times.