If there is any group of people who have been in any way happy with the recent “lockdown” situation, it is cyclists; more time, emptier roads, and coincidentally, for the most part, mostly beautiful weather.
There have certainly been many more people out on the roads than usual, many of whom look like they just dusted the old bike off for the first time in years, but it’s also natural to increase the time you spend on your bike when the weather is dry and the days bright.
Clare, our very own personal trainer, sports massage therapist, and a keen cyclist herself, has written a series of articles on common cycling injuries, their symptoms, causes, and also what you can do to prevent them. The first one is devoted to shoulder/neck pain. So, over to Claire…
“One of the biggest causes of injury is a sudden increase in training load (which can be intensity, volume, or both) and, as such, many of us will experience niggles as we capitalise on the increased motivation. However, they don’t have to stop you in your tracks. If you recognise the signs – or seek professional advice – early enough, and adapt your training and recovery appropriately, you may barely miss a ride!
It’s not hard to see why cycling can lead to significant shoulder or neck pain: leaning forward, with a significant amount of weight through your arms, and tilting the chin up so you can keep your eyes on the road – not to mention the vibrations from the road surface and jolts from unexpected potholes creating added tension. While “aero” positions – hips above the wrists, spine curled to allow the shoulders to sit as low as possible over the handlebars – are quite obviously problematic, it is very common for recreational cyclists on flat handlebars to experience similar discomfort.
Beyond bike set-up issues (frame size, handlebar width, seat height) that are best dealt with by a professional bike fitter, and acute injuries (for example, resulting from an accident) that are best dealt with by a qualified osteopath or physiotherapist, there are some relatively simple ways to address your posture on the bike and relieve tension:
- Stretch your chest, including pec minor (the small muscle at the top of your chest).
I recommend gentle, passive stretches, like simply lying on your back with your arms outstretched and palms facing up. If the backs of your palms can comfortably rest on the ground, place a rolled-up towel or foam roller along your spine, to deepen the stretch. Breathe deeply and stay for a couple of minutes or as long as it feels good!
Also stretch your neck and upper trapezius muscles (the fleshy bit between the tops of your shoulders and your neck, which also runs across your shoulder blades, down your spine, and up the back of your neck). You can do this by reaching one arm straight down, pulling your shoulder towards the floor, whilst turning your chin towards the elbow on the opposite side.
Stretching is best done gently, little, and often. Over-stretching leads to muscles getting tighter, or injured! Also, be aware that stretching exercises will only stretch the loosest part of the muscle, and when we are very tight we may not be able to get into the positions we need, so if basic stretching isn’t working, check in with a therapist or trainer who can pinpoint the best stretches for you and your body.
It’s not enough to stretch the tight areas; you need to balance the body out with enough strength to counteract the positions that caused tightness in the first place. When dealing with shoulder or neck pain from your cycling posture, you’re going to want to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder blades, particularly your rhomboids and your lower trapezius muscle. The best exercises for this is anything that involves squeezing your shoulder blades together: reverse flyes or band pull-aparts, and any kind of mid-row (a bent-over row will best replicate the position you hold on a road bike and strengthen the whole spine appropriately), though a lat pulldown will also be beneficial to posture. Using a weight that allows you to perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps will help strengthen and build muscle.
- Develop awareness.
You can have the strongest muscles in the world in the gym, but if you are not aware of your posture, you can easily slip into bad habits. Of course, if you’re out on the road it’s important that your main focus is on traffic and other obstacles, but if you get into the habit of checking in on your posture you won’t need to take your mind off the road to correct it every so often. If you cycle on a stationary bike, it can be helpful to spend more time focussing on your posture and less time worrying about the muscles getting tired in your legs!
Consider the following checkpoints for a stronger posture:
- keep your hips stable and firm in the saddle (engaging the pelvic floor can help with this)
- gently hug the belly button towards the spine
- lengthen the chest, as though you’re being pulled upwards from the breastbone – hug the elbows in towards each other, so you feel your latissimus dorsi (the big fleshy muscle under and slightly behind your armpit) engaging
- lengthen the back of the neck by pushing gently backward with the back of the skull, like you’re trying to create a double chin
- relax your jaw,
Of course, you won’t necessarily be able to do all of these things all the time, but if you get used to them one at a time you will find that your body naturally finds those positions on its own, and you will notice more when you are not in a strong and relaxed posture.”