While working with cyclists at the cyclocross race in Raleigh on Sunday, just about every cyclist complained of neck pain. It’s a very common cycling injury because of the position of your head and neck while cycling.
If you stand up straight, put your fingertips on the back of your neck, next to your spine, and then slowly bring your head to look up at the ceiling, you’ll feel the muscles contracting. There are several muscles involved, primarily your splenius capitis, splenius cervicis, trapezius, and erector spinae (you can see them by doing an internet search).
Now, stay with your head looking up at the ceiling and then bend forward into the aerodynamic position. When you are on your bike, leaning all the way forward to cut down the wind resistance, your head is actually leaning all the way back. The muscles that pull your head are not only supporting an 8 lb skull (+/-) but also the weight of your helmet, and since you aren’t standing up so your spine is holding the weight, your head is even heavier because it is unsupported.
The muscles are tightly contracted to hold the weight, and after a period of time they get tired (repetitively strained). Try pulling your head back and just leaning forward, staying that way for about five minutes. You’ll see how tiring it is, but when you are cycling you aren’t paying attention to that strained feeling.
I’ve worked with cyclists who have so totally shortened the muscles that they can’t hold their head up to see in front of them as they are riding. The most dramatic case I know about was Allen Larsen during the 2003 Race Across America (RAAM) where his assistants had to duck tape a broom handle from his helmet to his body because he couldn’t hold his head up at all. He still won the race (amazing!) but he has since had to give up endurance riding because of his neck. Allen is an incredible cyclist and it’s a shame that he was forced to cut his career short. I often wonder if he’d known to treat the muscles long before that RAAM race if the outcome would have been different.
Add to this the fact that your shoulders move up toward your ears, straining another muscle called levator scapulae, and you’re set up for some real neck and shoulder pain. If you get headaches you can blame the levator scapulae muscle because it originates on your C1-4 cervical vertebrae. When it is held tight for a period of time it will shorten to the new length (just as does all the other muscles), and then as you stand up straight the muscle needs to lengthen, but since it can’t lengthen fully you pull your vertebrae to the side and down. This puts pressure on your spinal cord, right at the base of your brain…Ouch!
To keep your body functioning well, you can:
2. If you aren’t close enough to do that, then look for a massage therapist who is skilled at doing trigger point therapy and ask him/her to treat the muscles listed above.
3. Learn how to self-treat and take care of it yourself.
In any case, you need to keep your muscles in great condition, which means a lot more than just exercising, it means to flush them of toxins, improve blood flow, release spasms/knots, and safely stretch.
Wishing you well,