Breathing & Your Bike

Being out on your bike is probably one of the best feelings in the world for you; you can feel your muscles working and your heart pumping and for a couple of hours you can let go of the stresses of your day and take in some beautiful scenery. However this dream turns into a bit of a nightmare when you start to develop pain either during or after each ride. Let’s have a look at some of the reason this may be happening.

Position on the Bike

Cycling is an impressive combination of balance, propelling yourself forward and avoiding other cyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles. In order to do this, one needs to be able to look up. This creates a chin poke when you are on a bicycle as your upper back (thoracic spine) is flexed forward and your neck then needs to extend more in order for you to be able to look up and see what is going on. During a long ride this position may cause compression of the joints in your neck (facet joints) – eliciting pain. Alternatively the joints may become compressed due to over activation of the levator scapulae and trapezius muscles who then cause an elevation of the shoulder blade and extension of the neck (mimicking the position adopted on the bike)

So what can you do about this?

  • Check your bike set up.
  • Be aware of your posture during a ride.
  • Ask your physiotherapist for correct stretches and exercises to correct your head on neck posture.

Incorrect Breathing Pattern

I know it may sound ridiculous, but the way you breathe has a direct impact on not only the muscles around your neck and upper back but your abdomen and lower back too!

During the correct pattern of breathing your diaphragm (a big flat sheet of muscle at the base of your ribs) should move downwards (increasing the amount of space your lungs can expand), your belly will swell outwards and your ribs should expand sideways. This not only allows all the muscles in your neck and shoulder to relax but allows you to take a full breath which will mean a decrease in breathlessness and more oxygen to get those muscles pumping!

When you breathe using mostly the top of your lungs (apical breathing) you would find that your chest lifts and your belly hollows out. This means your diaphragm is being forced upwards into your chest, effectively decreasing the amount your lungs can expand during a breath. Over time and with exertion your body will compensate for this by asking your neck and shoulder muscles to lift your rib cage upwards to create more space for the lungs to expand. This can result in neck pain and breathlessness.

Start by practicing diaphragmatic breathing in a relaxed and calm environment and once you have perfected it, you can try it on your bike. Start during your easy flat rides and gradually incorporate it into your harder rides and hills.

You can do this by standing or sitting comfortably with your knees slightly bent and your shoulders relaxed. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. The hand on your chest should not move during a breath! You should feel the hand on your belly gently being moved outwards during a deep breath in and the hand will naturally return to the start position with each exhalation.

If you are experiencing neck or lower back pain during or after cycling, ask your physiotherapist to assess the source of the symptoms and give you appropriate rehab exercises.

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