Pain In The Neck?

Triathlete on bike

One of the biggest complaints I hear from new triathletes (and some veterans) is neck pain. What does the neck have to do with triathlon? A lot, as it turns out.

No matter the type of bike you are riding, neck pain is a common complaint. It makes sense because when you ride a bike, your neck is in a fixed position for an extended amount of time. In the case of riding a triathlon-specific bike, particularly in aero, we see this position under even more stress as we try to get as small as we can to reduce frontal drag.

There are numerous factors that can contribute to neck pain, but I’m going to address the top three below.

Bike Fit

You’d be living under a rock if you didn’t know one of the best things you can do for yourself as a triathlete is to get a bike fit. Not one that simply measures your groin clearance, but a true bike fit that measures body angles and makes consideration for comfort over long distances. Bike fit also changes according to the bike, the event distance, and the athlete’s functional fitness.

The best thing you can for your triathlete endeavors (and neck pain) is get a good bike fit with someone who is schooled in the kinesthetic awareness of cycling and the human body. Things that should be addressed specifically include seat height, handlebar height, stem length, and aerobar reach. Expect to pay a couple hundred dollars as comfort is not cheap.

Tight Muscles

I don’t think I’ve ever met a triathlete that isn’t a bit stiff, or rather has limited flexibility in some of the major muscle groups, particularly the hamstrings (back of the upper leg) and hip flexors (front of upper thigh, near the hip). Given our tendency to sit most of the day, these muscle groups are constantly strained and stressed. In other words, not functional. This stiffness has a domino effect (you know, like the song “hip bone is connected to your tail bone”), and with each tight muscle you have, one
is also extended beyond its comfort and therefore, compromised.

Look at adopting a flexibility plan that specifically addresses the muscles used while biking. Most importantly, do not neglect the muscles in the neck. We keep a lot of stress in the neck muscles, so loosen those muscles up every morning when you wake up and before and after each ride.

Lack of Core Strength and Mobility

Behind the bike fit, I think a lack of core strength and mobility are one of the biggest contributors to bike-specific neck pain. Again, with a large sedentary population, our bodies adapt over time, and a weak core leads to postural issues, especially in the head, neck, and shoulders region. These muscles may become structurally weak and lack the mobility to sit on a bicycle for an extended period of time.

For that reason, you should incorporate a functional strength and mobility program that focuses on the stabilizer muscles surrounding these areas: shoulders, lats, rhomboids, erector spinae, transverse abdominis, obliques, and upper glutes. Notice I did not say to work on your traps as these muscles are chronically tight, as evidenced by our need to pull our shoulders away from our ears numerous times a day. Your traps should be addressed in your flexibility plan, which is mentioned above. There are several good examples of this type of program out there, but if you need help finding one, contact me.

In the end, it’s the little things that make a difference at the end of the day. Managing—or even keeping—neck pain away will greatly increase how much you enjoy those long bike rides.

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