The cervical spine region is referring to the neck. It holds that bowling ball sized thing called the head. While the cyclist reaches out to hold the handle bar the spine compensates by extending in the neck and flexing in the mid and lower back. This means that the muscles in the back of the neck shorten while the muscles in the front (deep and superficial) lengthen, which will lead to an imbalance which can eventually affect the joints in the neck causing moderate to severe pain.
One easy fix to counter this mechanical stress is cervical retractions and they actually don’t require any gym equipment. The movement looks sort of like a chin tuck except the person doesn’t tilt the chin down but pulls their entire head backward and holds it for ten or so seconds. This will reverse the natural curve of the cervical spine and helps rebalance musculature. Seems easy enough and the key to this is consistency which means several times throughout the day. Remember that the cyclist is working against hours and hours spent in the saddle so doing one or two retractions per day probably will not do the trick. Please note that if the neck pain is changing in quality and intensity during or following this exercise it may be wise to see a healthcare professional who can perform a proper evaluation.
The next exercise will require some sort of exercise band, and many brands are available on the fitness market. Please choose one that is to the athlete’s liking. This activity aims to fire up neck flexor muscles deep and superficial. Standing or laying down (face up) grab the band with both hands, bring the arms to shoulder level with elbows straight, and then open your arms so your body will resemble the letter “T”. Holding this position should stretch and tighten the band so the shoulder muscles around the mid-back will have to stabilize and stay in position. Make a note of how the band feels: a band that is too strong may cause the shoulders to shrug and the elbows to bend; to fix this grab the band wider or pick up a more elastic band. To begin slowly bring the chin in contact with the sternum without letting go of the band and hold for 5 seconds. Once finished, return the head and neck to the starting position while ensuring the shoulders remain steady. Perform about 10-12 reps relax the arms.
Another variation of this corrective exercise assists with improving cervical rotation quality and range. Imagine finishing a long ride, unclipping and turning to your riding buddy. Your neck may feel sore and tender while turning…you may not even able to turn your head all the way to the left or right. Occasional riders with limited cervical rotation can’t even turn their head while rolling without veering the bike off the pavement or into traffic (there is a skill component to this of course!). Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of cycling may be showing its effects. The “go to” exercise will be the band again starting in the “T” position with shoulders engaged. While arms open turn the head to left or right as far as it goes and hold that position for 5 seconds. Avoid tilting the chin and keep it level with the ground. Perform 8-10 reps on both sides then relax the arms.
Hopefully the above will help ease some of the aches cycling may bring on. Enjoy and have fun on and off the road!
Istvan Takacs, Physical Therapist, (BASc) Kinesiology and Exercise Science
Fuelixir Content Creator