A Pain in Your Neck: How Triathletes are Prone to Neck Pain Returning from a long ride on a Sunday afternoon, you get off your bike and that’s when it hits you: your neck is in some serious pain. Neck pain is, simply put, a pain in the neck for triathletes. Whether it’s on the bike or in the pool, triathletes put their bodies into a form that often leaves them suffering with chronic – and often debilitating – neck pain. Specializing in athletic performance, I often consult with triathletes in my clinic that need help to relieve the pain in their shoulders and neck. They often complain of a “pinched nerve”, which ultimately takes the fun out of training. Together, we work to address the problem and relieve that pain. The pain usually begins in the back of the neck or shoulder and slowly creeps its way up toward the heads, usually paired with a headache. The neck feels numb and my patient’s usually just want someone to push on the pressure points to relieve the pain. So how does neck pain happen? The two main causes of neck pain are tightness in the chest and the inability of the mid-back to properly move. When either of these symptoms happens, the soft tissue of the neck needs to work overtime, resulting in that feeling of tightness. This means the muscles at the back of the neck become permanently locked to help stabilize it. If you’re training for a big triathlon this spring, make sure you address any nagging neck or shoulder pain. Why? It all comes down to ensuring you don’t limit your technique. First, let’s break down the biomechanics of the sport that brings on neck pain. Cycling requires you to have sound biomechanics, producing an incredible amount of power, all while being in the same position for a very long time. Swimming, on the other hand, allows multiple segments of the body to flow smoothly through water. The important thing about both of these sports is the better the technique, the better the athlete. The tough part is that you can get in the pool or hop on your bike as much as you can, but having any neck or shoulder pain will limit your technique. Let’s say you’re trying to improve your swim stroke. If your left shoulder is bothering you, the perfected technique will never be accomplished until you address, and fix, that pain.
Remember, pain comes from the brain. When your brain doesn’t like what you are doing, it sends out an alarm, trying to tell you to get something checked out. So when you feel your neck start to cramp, it is your brain telling you to get the problem fixed. As a sports injury therapist, how do I help fix your neck and shoulder woes? The first step is to have your technique assessed. Not only should you get an experienced sports coach to review your technique, but also have a therapist address the restrictions of the body. A good therapist can work with the coach to prescribe appropriate exercises, and address soft tissue restrictions that may be hindering your performance. I’ve worked with my patient’s coaches to bring the best results for the athlete. You can also work on increasing your mobility. The below exercise can help improve the mobility of your mid back. This exercise will improve swimming stroke and relieve stress in the back, while maintain your cycling position.
Get on all fours with the arms underneath the shoulders and the knees under hips. Wrap one hand behind the neck with the palm down. Rotate your trunk down towards your straight arm touching elbow to elbow. Pause and then rotate your trunk moving the elbow up towards the ceiling. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. TIP: Don’t be tempted to pull your neck in this exercise. It will aggravate the problem as opposed to addressing it. Ensure you turn at your trunk. If you want to improve your cycling and swimming technique, and ultimately reach your PB this spring, you’re going to want to fix that pain in your neck.
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