How to Prevent Neck Pain on Long Rides

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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How to Prevent Neck Pain on Long Rides

A sore neck on the bike shouldn’t be something you just have to deal with. While the forward head position on a road bike causes problems for many cyclists, it’s something that can be avoided with a few simple fixes.

Whether it’s a tweak to your current riding position or developing more strength to support the weight of your head for longer durations, there are numerous fixes to this problem. Begin by noticing when the pain starts and see if you can pinpoint whether it’s your positioning or your strength, then try some of these tips:

TWEAKS TO YOUR ON-THE-BIKE POSITION

Most neck soreness and pain can be prevented with a proper bike fit. While it can take time to dial it in correctly, these minor tweaks to your positioning may solve most problems and help you be more comfortable while you ride.

1. HANDLEBAR HEIGHT 

If your handlebars are too low, you’ll be forced to reach farther than you should. This causes extra stress on your shoulders and puts your neck in a more extended position. While this might not be an issue on shorter rides, after an hour or more on the bike, your neck muscles begin to fatigue. This can result in soreness and stiffness that can eventually lead to injury.

You can raise the height of your stem for a slightly more upright position that doesn’t force you to extend your neck quite as much. If you still have room on your steerer tube, you can add spacers beneath your stem to raise the height of your handlebars. If your steerer tube has been cut and you don’t have room to add spacers, you can either change the angle of your stem or buy an adapter.

Stems are made for a variety of angles. If neck pain is an issue, you’ll want to buy a stem that has a positive rise. This means the angle rises upward, placing your handlebars higher. How much of an angle you need depends, so you may have to experiment with a few different models to find the right height for you. Adapters are also an option if spacers and stem angle haven’t solved the problem.

2. REACH

If you’ve adjusted the height and you’re still reaching too far for the handlebars, the problem could be your frame is too big. Getting a bike fit before you purchase your bike helps you avoid this issue, but if you already bought your bike and still want to try to make it work, try using a shorter stem.

Decreasing stem length brings the handlebars closer to your body, reducing the tension in your shoulders and neck due to overreaching. Keep in mind the length of the stem can affect your bike-handling, and if you go shorter it can make the bike harder to control and a little less stable. Going from a 120mm stem to a 100mm stem should be small enough to avoid too many adverse effects, but going below an 80mm stem will likely decrease the performance of your bike.

Just don’t try moving your saddle forward to scoot closer to the handlebars, because changing the fore/aft position of the saddle changes the angle of your knees as you pedal, and instead of having neck pain you’ll open yourself up to other injuries in the lower extremities.

IMPROVING STRENGTH

For those of you who have already dialed in the correct position with a bike fit and still commonly have neck soreness and pain while you ride, the problem may be weak neck muscles. Supporting the weight of your head for hours on the bike requires strength, and as you fatigue, your shoulders often try to compensate.

If this seems to be your issue, try these three exercises to build your neck strength and prevent fatigue:

1. SHRUGS

The upper trapezius attaches to the base of the skull and runs along the back of the neck to the top of the shoulders. This exercise strengthens this muscle, and in turn helps support your head while cycling. To complete the exercise, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells. Keeping your arms straight, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Hold 2–3 seconds before lowering back to the starting position. Complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

2. NECK CURLS

This exercise helps combat the forward head position on the bike by strengthening the muscles at the front of the neck. To do this exercise, lie on your back with your arms by your side, your feet flat on the floor and your head resting on a folded towel. Start by lowering your chin while keeping your jaw relaxed. Once you’re in this position, begin to curl the head up off the towel about a half an inch while maintaining the lowered chin. Hold this position for about 5 seconds. As you get stronger, try to work up to a 25–30 second hold. Rest for 10–15 seconds and complete 3 times.

3. CHIN TUCKS

The great thing about chin tucks is they help relax tight neck muscles to improve mobility while also strengthening the thoracic extensors that are responsible for keeping the neck aligned over the shoulders. Sit or stand upright with your head in a neutral position (ears directly above the shoulders). Place one finger on your chin and push the head backward. You should feel a stretch at the back of the head and neck. Hold this position for 5–10 seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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