Ask a Pro — Diane Stibbard
– Coach, Personal Trainer, and Two-Time Canadian Duathlete of the Year
A: This common problem for cyclists can cause anything from mild discomfort to sharp searing and burning pain that radiates up into the neck and further down into the back. Tight mid-and upper-back muscles from riding can be caused by many factors. High seasonal mileage in general, and daily/weekly saddle time keep the area tight. Cycling, unlike running, positions your head bent back and out of neutral alignment, causing the muscles of the upper back and neck to be in a constant state of sustained contraction as they work to keep the head up and in position. When muscles are contracted for long periods of time, blood circulation is restricted, resulting in muscle fatigue, which leads to pain and tightness.
Another common reason for chronic mid- and upper-back tightness, is incorrect bike fit. Review the following bike fit measurements if you are constantly having back and neck issues:
1. The top tube is too long, resulting in too long a reach to the handlebars and hoods.
2. The handlebars may be too low, which means you have to crank your neck up more to see where you are going.
3. The handlebars may be tilted up too much, which cause your neck and head to be tilted back to compensate.
If you’ve had your bike properly fit and you are still getting upper back and neck pain it’s a good idea to include regular strengthening and stretching exercises into your weekly fitness routine. Implementing both will reduce, and may even eliminate, the tightness and pain caused by lots of saddle time. Below is a list of simple, yet effective strengthening and stretching exercises for you to follow.
Seated Rows: This maybe done in a gym on a seated rowing machine, at home with tubing or with dumbbells.
Tubing Rows: Wrap the exercise tube around a stable object. Tubes come in many colours which denote the strength of the tubing. Typically the black tube will be the strongest and hardest, then the red, yellow, and green. The blue tube is the easiest. Hold the handles of the tube while sitting tall with your knees slightly bent. As you pull the tubing back toward your body, gently squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for one second, then release the tubing without leaning or moving your body forward. (Muscles worked: rhomboids, latissimus dorsi)
Y’s: Lie face down on the floor with your arms raised slightly above shoulder height, creating a Y with your thumbs facing up. Glide your shoulder blades toward your spine and lift your arms off the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat to complete your repetitions and sets. (Muscles worked: trapezius)
T’s: Lie face down on the floor with your arms raised slightly above shoulder height. To form a T, pull your shoulder blades in toward your spine with your arms extended to the sides. Lift your arms up and down, and repeat to complete your repetitions and sets. (Muscles worked: Rhomboids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi)
* Do the above routine 2–3 times weekly, starting with one set of 10–12 repetitions, and build to 3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.
Cross-hand stretch: (upper back) Cross your hands, then grab a banister or post. Lean back and drop your head in-between your arms, so you help the muscles of this area to open up and stretch out.
Neck oblique extensor stretch: (trapezius) Sit in a chair with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Turn your head right to a 45 degree angle. Then drop your head forward, bringing your right ear toward your chest. Place your left hand on top of your head and gently press down. Be sure to keep your shoulders down and your body still. Hold the stretch for 20–30 seconds, then switch to the other side.
Neck and lateral flexors: (upper back and neck) Sit in a chair with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Look straight ahead. “Cock” your head to one side, lowering your ear straight down toward your right shoulder. Reach up over the top of your head with your right hand. Gently place your fingers on your temple, and press very down very gently. Hold for 20–30 seconds, and switch to the other side.
Complete the above routine immediately after the strengthening routine as soon as you get off your bike.
There are a few other methods cyclists are using to alleviate the tightness and pain in the upper back and neck. One is using regular massage therapy, and the other is a massage technique that you can do at home using a foam roller. Foam rollers may be purchased at fitness or sporting goods stores, or at yoga or Pilates studios. You can also buy them online.
To use the foam roller for your upper back, do the following:
Lie face up with the foam roller under your upper back. Hold your hands behind your head with your elbows pointed to the sky. Roll the foam roller from your shoulders down to the middle of your back and repeat. The more uncomfortable it is, the more the muscles need to be massaged. When you come across a sore spot or “trigger point,” hold that position for an extended time to release the soreness, as if you were getting a massage.
If you have done all you can do to position yourself correctly while riding, then doing these strengthening and stretching routines will help alleviate your pain and keep your discomfort on the bike to a minimum.
Stay strong and loose, and ride well.
Diane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training. Does your company need a fitness consultant? Get in touch with Diane to discuss fitness seminars for corporations
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Check out Diane’s e-programs: Keeping Fit in the Off-Season and Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist.