If you’ve ever finished a ride and wondered why your neck and shoulders are hurting more than your legs, you’re not alone—it’s an all too common complaint among triathletes. Understanding why can help bring you closer to training and racing pain-free and faster. Don’t continue to suffer, as the pain is likely being caused by you overlooking a few key areas in your daily habits and your training. And the chances are, if neck and shoulder pain is causing you discomfort then you’re not going to enjoy your ride, pedal with optimal power and focus, or stay well-hydrated and fueled. A body in pain is a body rebelling, trying to give you a message—so listen to it! While there can be multiple causes, here are three of the most common reasons why your neck and shoulders hurt after riding.
1. Posture Matters
If you’re standing, or worse, sitting, as you read this article, how’s your posture? When sitting or standing you should be tall. Your hips should be level and aligned (not dumped forward into anterior rotation). Your shoulders should be rolled back, relaxed and down. You’d be surprised (or not) how much those shoulders creep upwards and dump forward throughout the day. And finally, your chin should be in a nice neutral position. “Texting neck” has entered the lexicon of physical therapists who see the long-term damage being done to cervical spines the world over due to prolonged time sitting and standing with the head craned forward and down while looking at a screen.
Simply put, the following two points below will do zilch for your neck and shoulder pain unless you fix the above, because how you sit and move on your bike is really just an extension of how you sit and move in general.
The solution? Challenge yourself with an hourly alarm to check your posture and reset. And rather than bring your head down to your phone when scrolling, bring your phone up to you.
2. Strength and Conditioning Counts
Gone are the days when we strode around barefoot, cut down trees for firewood with our bare hands, looked people in the eye, and offered firm handshakes. OK, so maybe I’m over exaggerating a tad, but not that much. It’s important to recognize that whereas life used to provide ample opportunities to build a strong body with great range of motion, the demands of the 21st century do not. Your neck and shoulders might be hurting because they’re simply not used to being used in the way you want them to move on the bike; they need to be stronger, more supple, and more mobile.
To hold yourself on the bike for prolonged periods of time, to open up the lungs to breathe efficiently, and to effectively translate power from your body to your pedals, you need to be strong and you need to have a good range of motion. This is where strength and conditioning work comes in, specifically: push-ups, pull-ups, and overhead squats (even with a broomstick or PVC pipe) all help to increase both the demand and range of motion required in that upper body of yours. Add these in twice per week. Start with three sets of five reps and work up to five sets of six reps. Consistent exposure is far more important than hitting mega workouts for only part of the year.
For mobility, you need to open up your thoracic spine, your pecs, and your lats. I think all triathletes can relate to swimming after not pulling their wetsuit up all the way. That reach becomes a bit harder! Now imagine it’s your stiff and tight pecs and lats that are limiting your range. This video highlights three upper body mobility stretches for athletes—aim to spend three minutes per side per body part at least three times a week, and maybe even daily if you’re particularly stiff. If you’re looking for possible causes for why your neck and shoulders hurt, then start here as this will help take a lot of the stress out of your neck and shoulders. These exercises help keep your shoulders where they want to be in the first place—back and down and relaxed! The overhead squat is another good exercise to help keep your neck and shoulders in good working order.
3. Bike Fit & Position
Only when you’re moving better with better posture habits, and you’re building a stronger body with greater control and range of motion, is it time to ride and think about bike fit and positioning.
In terms of bike position, you want to think about riding with a long spine and a long neck. Simply put, if you start riding hunched over on your bike seat then you’re introducing some inefficient kinks in the system. Your spine will be compressed, meaning your shoulders and arms will have to reach further forward to get to your cockpit, and your chin will have to be jammed further upwards to see.
This is how a lot of people ride without realizing it—and it’s a large reason why your neck and shoulders hurt when you finish your ride. You can’t breathe or maneuver well and you fatigue quickly. So practice better habits on your rides. Set an alarm to for every 30 minutes to get tall and long again. You’ll be more efficient, powerful, and comfortable.
We won’t dive too deeply into bike position (although you can read more about that here and its effect on your neck and shoulders), but let’s just say it does contribute significantly. Once your body is moving well and mobile, your priority should be bike fit and positioning.
A proper bike fit should be an extension of your bike posture and your range of motion. While it might be tempting to go super aero at first, remember it’s about comfortably holding that position for long periods of time. So if you’re new to triathlon and cycling and/or you’re aiming for longer distances, starting with a more upright position will help a lot. And then as you adapt and get stronger, you can play with a lower more aggressive position.
Remember, all the stretching and strengthening and bike fitting in the world won’t combat the hundreds of hours you quickly accumulate in ugly positions on your computer, couch, desk, and phone. So own your body and honor it with better positions. Combine the three steps above and you should having not only a better understanding of why your neck and shoulders hurt, but also be on your way to pain-free, faster performances.
Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and athletes who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He’s spent the past 13 years working with endurance athletes—from Olympians to every day athletes—in the gym to improve their strength, mobility, and mechanics so they can perform. You can download The Run Experience app to get strength and injury prevention workouts as well as new daily audio runs.