Prescriptions: Getting the Kinks Out

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Bodywork, May 1997

Prescriptions: Getting the Kinks Out
By Alan Coté

Flat tires may be an unavoidable unpleasantry of cycling, but the dull, achy tightness in your neck and shoulders after a two-hour ride is a nuisance you can avoid and something definitely not to be ignored. "You run the risk of suffering long-term ill effects, maybe even damaging nerve roots," warns Andrew Pruitt, medical director of the 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling team. Happily, staving off such pain requires little more than adjusting your bike fit and paying attention to your body position.

Check the distance between your seat and handlebars. Reaching too far forward forces you to cock your neck sharply to watch road or trail, which can hyperextend your vertebrae's small glide pads, thus leaving you with a seemingly permanently sore neck. "There's no magic formula," Pruitt says. "If you feel too stretched out, you're probably straining your muscles." The solution is to switch to a shorter stem or move your seat forward — whichever feels more comfortable.

Don't get lulled into staring at the ground rolling by, or any other trance: Holding your muscles in a fixed position, right or wrong, for long periods guarantees an achy neck. Pruitt's advice: "Once you're underway, frequently change hand positions on the handlebars." Concentrate on keeping your elbows slightly bent so they can act as shock absorbers, reducing the pounding to your back and neck. If you do get stiff, sit up and ride with no hands so you can stretch your neck and rotate your arms to loosen up your shoulders. Of course, if you have chronic pain, consider seeing a doctor.

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