Your Bike and Your Neck

By Dan Hellman

As cycling becomes more popular for both exercise and local transportation, more people are complaining about neck pain after spending time riding. So what’s going on?

Cycling shouldn’t cause pain or discomfort, but I have a friend—a fairly experienced cyclist—who was complaining that he often felt like he had just finished painting a warehouse ceiling after he went 25 or 30 miles on his bike. He was doing something wrong, but what?

Posture and position are everything.

Posture and position are everything when it comes to cycling in comfort. Every bicycle has several ways to adjust for the length of your legs, arms and torso, and you need to use them all. When you buy a bicycle, you need to be fitted on it, just like you are fitted into a suit. Once you have the basic size right, you need to make the finer adjustments.

It doesn’t stop there. When you ride, you need to be conscious of how you are positioning your head. The challenge for cyclists is that, in any kind of serious riding, the head is thrust forward and the cyclist might feel the need to crane his neck—that is, tilt it backwards in a state of hyperextension—in order to see ahead. Do this for a long time and you will definitely feel like you’ve been painting a ceiling.

That is because the deep neck extensors become fatigued and stiff, which forces the trapezius muscle to support the weight of the head. This will cause stiffness and pain in the upper back and neck over time.

The weight of your head can strain your neck muscles.

In my blog post of May 14, 2018 titled “That Smart Phone Is Messing with Your Kid’s Head,” I talked about the strain the head puts on the neck muscles when it is not resting on the shoulders. The neck muscles have to strain to keep your head—which can weigh up to 14 pounds—in position. Unfortunately, your head is in that position frequently when you ride a bicycle, particularly if you are on the drop-down handlebars. 

So how do you avoid keeping your neck in a state of hyperextension for long periods of time and still keep your eyes on the road ahead when you are riding? The answer is both in the bike fit and in the way you ride and use your head and your eyes.

Try your bike on like a suit.

First, let’s get back to the fit—that is, trying on your bike like a suit and getting it altered to your exact measurements. Straddle the bicycle with your feet on the ground. If your bike has a horizontal top tube, your crotch should clear the tube by an inch or two. If it has a sloping tube, by two inches or more.

Next, you need to pay attention to the height of the saddle, or seat. The main factor in determining proper height will be the position of your leg at the pedal’s lowest point. Your leg should be almost—but not quite—straight. If the saddle is too high and you have to lean to one side to get power though the entire stroke, you risk injuring your back, and you won’t be riding efficiently. If it’s too low, and your leg bends too much, you will be very uncomfortable–and you won’t be using the full power of your legs.

Get the seat height right.

Once the seat is the proper height, you need to look at the position of the handlebars. Much neck pain comes when the seat is too high in relation to the handlebars, causing the rider to lean forward, lower the upper torso and hyperextend the neck. This is especially true if the rider spends a lot of time with his hands on the lower part of drop-down handlebars rather than with the hands over the hoods. So if the seat is the right height but the handlebars are low, you may need to raise the handlebars until they are at a comfortable level.

The last thing to consider is the reach to the handlebars, and this is especially important for people who are significantly shorter or taller than average. Joe Lindsey, writing in, has good advice: “When you sit comfortably in the saddle, you should be able to easily reach the tops and brake hoods on a road bike, or the grips on a mountain bike. Your elbows should be slightly bent, not locked. And the lean of your torso should be supported by your core in a comfortable position.”

Pay attention to the way you ride.

Once you are satisfied with the way your bike fits, you need to pay attention to the way you ride. Here are a few simple rules to follow. First, try not to allow the weight of your torso to be supported by your arms resting against the handlebars. Putting the entire weight of your upper body on your arms and hands will cause neck pain because—well, remember that old song that goes, “the arm bone is connected to the neck bone” (or something like that)?  Well, it is, and that means that your neck will absorb any shock from the road that your arms don’t absorb. How do you make your hands and arms absorb the shock? Just be sure to keep your elbows slightly bent and to rest your hands lightly on the tops of the handlebars most of the time, so your arms can act like shock absorbers. 

Second, make sure your hands are even with your shoulders when they are on the handlebars. If they are too close together, they will cause you to raise your shoulders slightly and squeeze your neck.

Third, change your hand positions frequently and ride sitting up straight from time to time to relieve stiffness and discomfort. I think most people do this naturally, just because it is never comfortable to be in the same position for a long time. But it’s something we should do consciously.

And fourth, try to get used to seeking the horizon by moving your eyes upward, not by craning your neck. This may seem easy, but I guarantee you that most of us will want to look upward with our head rather than simply peering up as if we were looking over a pair of reading glasses. If you are properly positioned on the bike, this method of looking down the road should help keep you comfortable and pain-free.

Cycling should be fun and relaxing. More and more people in their 50s and 60s—and older—are cycling with some seriousness now because cycling offers strength and aerobic benefits with low impact on the joints, particularly the knees, hips and lower back. But like any other physical activity, we have to think carefully about how we engage in this activity, and the more you ride, the more important it is to get the fit and the riding techniques down pat.

Recover with ELDOA

To offset the deleterious effect that riding can have on your posture, I recommend a type of exercise called ELDOA.  ELDOA is a one-minute exercise targeting specific joints that you can perform anywhere.  It counteracts the compression our spine experiences through physical activity and everyday life, and it is the only therapy I know that actually enlarges the space between the vertebrae.

For cycling I recommend doing ELDOAs that target specific joints in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions of the back—the T6-T7, T8-T9, C4-C5 and L5-S1.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the terminology governing the regions of the vertebral column, that means the joints between the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, the eighth and ninth thoracic vertebrae, the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae (shown in the picture below), and the fifth lumbar and first sacral vertebrae, right at the waist.

Exercises for the cervical spine

By performing just 4 minutes of exercise, you can enjoy all the benefits of cycling.  These exercises can be found in my on-line ELDOA program titled ELDOA for Golf, which I did for the Titleist Performance Institute, the world’s leading authority on golf fitness and performance. Don’t let the “for golf” part fool you, because these exercises aren’t just for golfers; they are for anyone who wants to enjoy an active life and maintain a healthy back and posture. —and it’s well worth the modest subscription fee.  Click here to learn more.

Until next time.  Happy cycling and be safe.

Better Body. Better Life.

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