While casual cyclists may escape the worst of neck and back pain, serious, competitive cyclists will be well familiar with these conditions. A combination of sometimes challenging road conditions, inadequately conformed bicycle, and incorrect posture can all conspire to cause not only lower back pain, but pain through the upper back and neck.
Even if you think you can just ignore minor pain when cycling, especially when you’re training, in most cases neglect of the problem will catch up with you and you may find yourself sidelined for weeks or months. This will be especially devastating if you’re looking forward to a major race such as the Tour Down Under.
The Causes of Cycling Neck and Back Pain
The hunched over posture required for competitive cycling puts an enormous amount of strain on your spinal column, back muscles, shoulders, and neck. There are a number of causes, in addition to posture that will contribute to pain in this area:
- Letting your back sag between the neck and the pelvic girdle.
- Leaning so far over the handlebars that you have to lift your head to see will put a great deal of strain upon the neck.
- A very low handlebar height.
- Overreaching with your arms.
- Decreased blood circulation because of an incorrect posture deprives muscles of the oxygen they need.
- Generally weak muscles.
All of the above can contribute to making your cycling painful and can impact your performance during a race. If you have overtrained, pushed yourself too hard prior to the race, you will also find that your cycling will suffer.
While it is, unfortunately, human nature to push ourselves and take too much on before we are properly prepared, if you want to do your best when cycling and want to avoid neck and back pain that might put you on the couch for weeks, or even months, you can take some steps to avoid injury to begin with.
- You should already have a regular schedule of full body exercises already in place. When your body is strong all over, you will be less likely to injure your back or neck while cycling.
- Warm up your muscles before you get onto the seat. Stiff, cold muscles are more likely to be harmed when you bike.
- Have a pro shop adjust your bike so that it fits your body properly. The height and width of your handlebars, as well as the angle of your seat are important for pain-free cycling. The shop will also be able to advise you on the proper shoes to wear when cycling.
- Arch your back while you cycle. An arched back is not only stronger, but it acts as a shock absorber when you hit some rougher stretches of road.
- Make sure that your helmet is sitting properly on your head, if it’s not back far enough, you will have to keep raising your head in order to see where you’re going. This will put too much strain upon your neck.
- Neck exercises, including chin tucks and rotations, will help to strengthen the muscles of the neck and increase flexibility.
- Specific exercises to strengthen the shoulders and back will go a long way to preventing both upper and lower back pain.
Treating Neck and Back Pain
Sometimes, regardless of the steps you have taken to keep your back and neck pain-free, pain will develop anyway. Don’t delay in getting treatment when pain occurs; postponing treatment and hoping that the pain will ‘just go away’ will usually mean that it will only get worse. Dealing with a minor problem is always much easier than dealing with a major one.
- As with most pain that has a muscular origin, you should provide rest and apply ice packs at least 3 times a day. Recline so that your shoulders and head are elevated, but be sure to provide some support for your head and neck.
- Exercises to help deal with neck and back pain can be very effective in loosening tight, overworked muscles.
- A visit to your local bike shop can result in a professional assessment of your bike to make sure it’s the proper fit.
- Massage therapy is the way to go to help relax & stretch sore, tight muscles, but also work out trigger points. The sense of total relaxation that a massage provides will also help you with stress as well as pain.
Cycling is one of the best competitive activities, and keeping your neck and back free of pain will help you enjoy the sport even more.