Neck pain and stiffness can drain your energy on long rides, cause tension headaches and leave you vulnerable to muscle tweaks. Unfortunately, it’s super common in mountain biking which hits the lethal trifecta for neck issues—non-optimal posture, excessive tension and injury.
Yoga can be really effective for relieving neck pain, as we work on 3 different levels—releasing tension, restoring range of motion and strengthening weakened musculature.
HOW ALIGNMENT AFFECTS NECK PAIN
When you’re standing with good posture, your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all be in a straight line and your spine should be in a neutral position. In neutral spine, there is a gentle inward curve at your lower back and at the back of your neck and a slight rounding at your mid-back. Standing, sitting and moving through the world in roughly this alignment places the least amount of stress on your muscles and ligaments.
It’s not that being in other positions is inherently bad for you—unless of course you’re holding that position for a long period of time, under physical stress and/or load—say, riding up a mountain for several hours, wearing a full-face helmet with a rucksack on your back.
On the trail, an immense amount of pressure goes through your neck and shoulders. The muscles on the back and side of your neck have to work hard to support your head (ideally the job of your skeleton), and this can quickly lead to neck pain if you don’t actively release the tension.
MUSCULAR ADAPTATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH NECK PAIN
Over time, this is the common pattern that emerges for mountain bikers:
- The upper back muscles (upper trapezius) and the muscles in the side and back of your neck (levator scapulae, scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid) tighten up.
- The facet joints in the back of your neck are compressed.
- The muscles of your mid-back that stabilise your shoulder blades (the rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius) are over-stretched and become weak.
- The front of your shoulders and chest close up, shortening and tightening the anterior deltoids and pec major and minor.
- The muscles in the front of your neck atrophy from lack of use.
Now that we understand this pattern, we can start to address the muscular imbalances and postural misalignments that are at the root of the problem.
RE-BALANCING THOSE MUSCULAR IMBALANCES
These are the areas we need to work on:
- Releasing tension in the upper back and the back and sides of the neck.
- Opening up the chest and the front of the shoulders.
- Increasing range of motion in the neck, shoulders and thoracic spine (mid-back).
- Strengthening the mid-back—the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades—and the muscles in the front of the neck.
- Correcting the alignment of the cervical spine/decompressing the back of the neck.
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are three parts to this—releasing tension, restoring range of motion and strengthening supporting structures. I’m going to recommend a number of poses and techniques, and you can experiment with what feels good and gives you the relief you are looking for. Please note that these poses are not designed for managing whiplash or other acute neck injuries, nor are they meant to replace physical therapy. If you have any concerns, please check with your doctor before you try any of these poses. None of them should cause you any pain.
PART ONE: RELEASING TENSION IN THE NECK
The two primary reasons that muscles get tight are from holding a shortened position for a long period of time without being released, and from over-activity without release.
You can do these stretches on the bike, in the car, at your desk—pretty much anywhere.
- Slow down your breath and breathe deep into your abdomen.
- Hold each stretch for 3–5 breaths, deepening the stretch on every exhalation.
- Be gentle. If you apply too much force or move too quickly, your muscles will contract even more.
- Notice where you are holding tension and pay extra attention to those areas.
For the Neck Stretch, try a few different angles. Look straight ahead and hold the stretch there to stretch the side of your neck (scalenes), then look up to stretch the front of the neck (sternocleidomastoid), and look down to stretch towards the back of your neck (levator scapulae and upper traps).
PART TWO: LOOSEN UP THE NECK
This 6-minute sequence taken from the Yoga Before Bed video, puts those stretches into a mobility sequence, designed to loosen up the neck, shoulders and upper back.
PART THREE: STRENGTHEN WEAK MUSCLES
The key areas you need to strengthen are the muscles that stabilise your shoulder blades and the front of your neck and the best pose for this is Locust.
An exercise you can do to strengthen the muscles in the front of your neck is a simple chin tuck. Standing, sitting or lying, relax your jaw and tuck your chin to your chest. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Repeat this 10 times. You can do it several times throughout the day.
WORK ON YOUR POSTURE
One of the best things you can do for neck pain, is to work on improving your posture. If you notice that your head is jutting forward, make a mental note to draw it back. Check periodically throughout the day that you are maintaining that gentle inward curve. And keep your chin level. If you are working at a desk, position your screen at eye level. If you notice that you tighten up in the neck and shoulders when you’re concentrating, take a few breaths to relieve some of the tension. And try to maintain a more relaxed position on the bike. Not gripping too hard or holding onto unnecessary tension in your upper body.
- Every minute: check in with your posture.
- Every hour: take stretch breaks to encourage circulation and avoid tightening up.
- Every day: practice 15 minutes of yoga flow to keep your body supple.
- Every week: practice relaxation poses for deep and long-lasting release.
Other therapies: massage, sauna, ice baths, foam rolling, magnesium supplementation, Epsom salt baths, sensory deprivation tanks, taking time off to relax.
YOUR 5 CLASSES
- Therapeutic: T-Spine Mobility
- Singles: Yoga Before Bed
- Relaxation 7: Long Hard Day
- All-Rounder 15: Yoga Sleep
- Therapeutic: Back And Shoulder Love
Let us know if you have any other neck and shoulder stretches or strategies to share.
Cover photo credit: Graham Mattock