This week I’m going to give you tips on how to avoid upper back, shoulder and neck pain while riding. In 1986 Pete Penseyres set the solo transcontinental speed record of 3,107 miles (5,000 km) in 8 days, 9 hours and 47 minutes, which included all time on and off the bicycle! He averaged 15.40 mph (24.8 km/h). That record stood for 27 years. Christoph Strasser finally broke it in 2013, averaging 15.58 mph (25.74 km/h).
Perhaps even more amazing than the original record itself, Pete told me he was able to set the record because nothing hurt! I’ve raced solo RAAM and coached many RAAM racers — and I’ve never heard of another case where nothing hurt on such a ride!
Last week I wrote about saddle pain / discomfort, which is the most common problem affecting RBR readers. This week’s column covers the second most common complaint – shoulder and neck pain / discomfort.
Before reading further, take a good look at this photo.
How many things can you identify in the photo of me that would lead to upper body discomfort? I’m exaggerating my posture in the photo; however, most riders I see on the road resemble this!
OK, time’s up. Let’s see how many you spotted. (Granted, some are more obvious than others.)
Here’s what I’m doing wrong:
- My shoulders are hunched up.
- My arms are almost straight.
- My back is arched because my core muscles aren’t engaged.
- Because my back is arched, my neck is hyperextended (bent more) so that I can see ahead.
- Instead of being in a neutral position, my pelvis is rotated so the front is up and the back is down.
The Result of this Terrible Posture: Riding like this results in neck, arm, shoulder and back muscles all working more than they need to, which results in tension and pain.
Now take a close look at the following photo.
See how many things you notice about what I’m doing right?
Let’s tally them up.
Here’s what I’m doing right:
1. My shoulders are relaxed (not hunched) and back because my rhomboids are engaged. The rhomboids are the muscles in the upper back that pull the shoulder blades down and back.
2. My torso is at a nearly 45-degree angle to the top tube. I’m not stretched out into an aggressive position that’s hard to hold comfortably (because my bike is fit properly to me).
3. My back is flat and in a neutral position because my core muscles are engaged.
4. My pelvis is in a neutral position because my core muscles are engaged and because I’m flexible. Standing with my legs straight, I can put my hands flat on the floor. (Fabian Cancellara is so flexible that he can put his hands flat on the floor behind his feet!)
5. My neck is bent less and I’m looking straight ahead.
6. My hands are relaxed, my elbows are bent slightly and my arm muscles are relaxed.
Extra credit if you thought about these 2 things when thinking about good riding form and staying relaxed and loose on the bike:
- On the road I use a mirror and strongly advocate using one. However, using a mirror habituates the roadie to just glancing at it rather than rotating to look over the rider’s shoulder, which can help keep the neck and shoulders a bit looser.
- I have down-tube shifters on my trainer bike. Integrated shift / brake levers are great, except that a rider doesn’t have to change position to shift. I have bar end or down tube shifters on all of my bikes, which does force me to alter my position at least a bit in order to shift. Again, a change in position once in a while is a good thing.
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What can you do to avoid upper body discomfort or pain from cycling?
1. Bike fit — Get a professional bike fit. Tell the technician the kind of riding you actually do, not the position of racers that you want to emulate. Tell the technician about any pains you have anywhere in your body on the bike.
2. Core strength — Do exercises designed to strengthen the core muscles that form a girdle around your abdomen, not exercises like crunches, sit-ups and back flexion / extension. Crunches, etc., strengthen your external muscles that bend and straighten your torso – not the core muscles. Further, crunches, etc., are dynamic, stretching and contracting your muscles. Core strength on the bike is isometric; your core muscles are engaged but nothing is moving.
3. Stretches — Stretch your body, which is a kinetic whole. Tight hamstrings, for example, affect your gluteals, which affect your low back muscles, which affect your shoulder muscles. Because your body is a kinetic whole, do a set of stretches that increases range of motion in all parts of your body.
I spend 10 – 15 minutes most days stretching and doing core strength, usually with my first cup of coffee.
4. Flat back — Working on the first three will help you to ride with a flat back. Start by trying to ride with a flat back for about five minutes every half hour or so. Consciously doing this will build the habit as well as strengthening your core muscles.
5. Change positions — Don’t just stare at the road or another rider’s wheel. Look around at the scenery. Look back over both shoulders. Reach down to get a bottle with each hand. If you still get stiff, do the cat stretch. Alternate slowly arching your back and upper body, similar to what I’m doing in the first photo. Then slowly push your belly toward your top tube, reversing the arc. Do not try to sit up and ride no hands — it’s not worth taking a fall.
6. Relax — On your next ride inventory all the muscles in your upper body. Are they working at all? Do they need to be engaged? Or are they unnecessarily tense. I mountain bike, and to avoid crashing I have a light grip on the bars and let the bike move under me. I trust the bike — it’s designed to ride a good line. I do the same on my road bike.
7. Strengthen your rhomboids — These are the muscles that hold your shoulders down and back slightly so that they’re in a neutral position. The photos show Coach Dan Kehlenbach using a stretch cord to do the exercise.
(I prefer to loop the cord over something higher, forming about a 45-degree angle with the floor so that the motion pulls the shoulder blades back and down.) These cords come in different resistances. You may need to experiment to find the right one to start with. Start with a set of 20 reps, building up to 50 reps. Do the exercise slowly, both pulling the cord back and returning to the start. When you can do 50 slow reps, get a harder cord.
Like Pete Penseyres, you don’t have to hurt on the bike. Pete famously did his core and stretching while eating ice cream and watching TV with his family.
Next week, I’ll address a related topic: numb / painful hands, the third most common complaint affecting RBR readers. Hint: preventing this, too, involves core strength.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.