65 y.o. RBR reader Kerry asks,
“Just this past year I have noticed that when I am doing long downhills (3-6 miles long), my neck gets very tired from holding my head up to be able to look down the road. When it happened before, it was at the beginning of the riding season/year and I wasn’t used to hold my head up for extended periods of time, but as the time went on, my neck got stronger. Now that I am 65, my neck never seems to get stronger through out the year. As it turns out I have a ridding budding of the same age and he also complains of a tired neck when descending, so I guess it’s more age related. Are there exercises that can be done to strengthen my neck muscles to prevent this problem?”
Coach Hughes Kerry, neck fatigue is a very common problem with the endurance riders with whom I work. Shermer’s neck is the name for severe cases, named after Michael Shermer who’s neck muscles failed so he couldn’t hold his head up to look down the road during the Race Across AMerica. There are multiple contributing factors:
One year when I was coaching at a camp, a couple rode up to me and the husband, Dave, asked, “My wife’s neck gets sore — what exercises can she do to strengthen it?” I rode along side her and quickly noticed that her stem was way too long and too low. Because she was so stretched out she had to flex her neck muscles more to hold her head up and the muscles understandably fatigued.
Bike fit is dynamic. I still ride my Merlin racing bike, which I used to set ultra distance records and compete in the Race Across AMerica. But I’m two inches shorter than I was then, less flexible and less concerned about aerodynamics so my stem is taller with a shorter reach. The most comfortable spot for you should be with your hands on the brake hoods. If the most comfortable spot is on the top of the bars by the stem or on the curves just outside the top, then your handlebars are too far away and/or too low.
Your body position on the bike also affects your neck. If you ride with a rounded back like photo #1 (exaggerated) notice how much more you need to use your neck muscles to hold your head up high enough to look ahead than in photo #2 with a flat back. To ride with a flat back you need a strong core. This does not mean more crunches, which only strengthen the surface muscles. You want to strengthen the deeper muscles that form a girdle around your abdomen, e.g., planks and bird dogs. My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process illustrates five different core exercises. If your core is strong enough, then your upper body should be supported by your core so that your hands rest lightly on the bars like you’re typing.
If you descend with your hands in the bends (hooks) behind / underneath the brake levers then you have to use your neck muscles more to lift your head to see down the road. I don’t descend aggressively like I did years ago. I descend with my hands on the brake hoods where it’s very easy to move my hands slightly outward and put my fingertips on the brake levers to slow me a bit. If I need more braking, then I’ll put my hands in the hooks for the few necessary seconds and then I’m back on the hoods. Unless you race or love the feeling of speed, there’s no reason to descend with your hands in the hooks.
Dynamic body position
Another reason for a stiff neck is descending the three to six miles with your head and neck in the same position the whole time. Shifting from the brake hoods to the hooks to the hoods will help to relieve this. I also rotate my head from side to side to look at the scenery.
When you are riding with your head held in the same position, then your neck muscles are working isometrically. You can strengthen them with an isometric exercise. Stand or sit with your head and neck in the normal position and wrap your hands around the back of your head. Use your neck muscles to pull your head into your hands and resist with your arms so that your head doesn’t move. Photo neck strength #1: Hold this for about 30 seconds and then let your chin drop relaxing your neck muscles. Photo neck strength #2: Repeat several times and as your neck gets stronger increase the duration of each repeat. Do not do this exercise with your neck flexed and your head tilted back. This would put pressure on your vertebrae and risks injury.
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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.