Pain and stiffness in the neck can drain your energy on long, hard rides, cause tension headaches and leave you vulnerable to tweaks and muscle strain. Unfortunately, it’s super common in mountain biking which hits the lethal trifecta for neck issues: non-optimal posture, excessive tension, and injury.
Fortunately, yoga can be really effective at relieving this sort of pain. Similar to my approach for alleviating lower back pain, there are three parts to this: releasing tension, restoring range of motion and strengthening supporting structures.
As you come into the off-season, it’s the perfect time to work on your rehabilitation and conditioning. You should find something in this article to get started on.
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 neutral. In the 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 muscles and ligaments throughout your body.
It is 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.
An immense amount of pressure goes through your neck and shoulders. The muscles on the back and side of your neck especially have to work hard to support your head (ideally the job of your skeleton) and this can quickly lead to stiffness and soreness if you don’t actively release the tension.
Over time, this is the common pattern that emerges:
- 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 joints in the back of the neck are compressed. - The muscles in the mid-back that stabilise the shoulder blades (rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius) are over-stretched and become weak. - The front of the shoulders and chest close up, becoming short and tight. - The muscles in the front of your neck atrophy from lack of use.
Once we understand this pattern, we can start to address the muscular imbalances and postural misalignments that are at the root of the problem.
These are the areas we need to work on:
- Release tension in the upper back and the back and sides of the neck. - Open up the chest and the front of the shoulders. - Increase range of motion in the neck, shoulders and thoracic spine (mid-back). - Strengthen the mid-back—the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades—and the muscles in the front of the neck. - Correct the alignment of the cervical spine/decompress the back of the neck.
As I mentioned, there are three parts to this: releasing tension, restoring range of motion and strengthening supporting structures. I am 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 pain.
Part One: Releasing Tension
As a reminder, 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, again, without release.
There are two parts to this section that roughly break down into active and passive stretching. You can do the active stretches on the bike, in the car, at your desk, pretty much anywhere, and the passive poses are best done at home in the evening for a deeper level of release.
i. Targeted Stretches
Here are some stretches you can do to release tension in your neck, upper back, and shoulders.
- 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).
ii. Relaxation Poses
Here are five therapeutic poses you can do in the evening as a sequence, or just one or two at a time. The aim is profound relaxation—to allow the muscles in your neck, shoulders and upper back to soften and relax.
Relaxation is a skill like any other. You may discover that you’re unconsciously holding a lot more tension than you realise, especially around the neck and jaw. With practice, you’ll find that you get better and better at letting go of this tension.
- Support yourself on as many cushions and pillows as you need to fully relax into the poses. - Hold each pose for 2–3 minutes to begin with and increase this over time. Use a timer to track your progress. - Slow down your breath and breathe deep into your abdomen. Imagine that your breath is dissolving away tension and pain. - Notice if you are holding tension in your jaw and consciously let it go. - If you want something to focus on, follow the movement of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. - You can repeat this sequence, once, twice, three times a week. As often as you need it.
1. Legs Up The Wall
Decompresses the back of the neck and opens up the chest and shoulders.
- You can support your head and neck on a thin cushion or blanket. - Keep the back of your neck long, relax the muscles in the side of your neck and allow your head to feel heavy. - Let go of any tension in your jaw. - Stay in the pose for 3–10 minutes.
Stretches the chest, triceps, and lats opens up the shoulders and decompresses the spine.
- Try to keep your hips roughly above your knees and draw them back against your elbows to create traction in the spine. - You can rest your forehead on a blanket. - Consciously let go of any tension in your neck and jaw. - Stay in the pose for 2–3 minutes and increase this over time.
3. Twisted Scorpion
Opens up the chest and shoulders and improves rotational spinal mobility.
- You can support your head and neck on a cushion and move the position of your bottom arm to get the stretch you need. - Allow the weight of your top knee falling open to increase the twist at your waist. - Relax your neck and jaw. - Stay in the pose for 2–3 minutes, to begin with. - Be careful when you come out of the pose.
4. Reclining Spinal Twist
Opens up the chest and shoulders, stretches the neck and increases rotational spinal mobility.
- Completely relax into the pose. You can use as many cushions as you need to support your top knee. - Bending your elbows to 90 degrees will alter the position of the stretch across your chest. - Stay in the pose for 5+ minutes on each side, letting of tension on every exhalation.
5. Supported Fish
Decompresses the back of the neck, opens up the chest and shoulders, increases mobility in the thoracic spine
- Keep the back of your neck long. - Use as many cushions as you need under your head and mid-back. - If it is uncomfortable to lie flat, bend your legs, place your feet on the floor and let your knees fall in towards each other. - Allow your breath to release tension in your jaw and your ribcage. - Stay in the pose for as long as you need, letting go of tension with every exhalation.
Another effective way to release tension in the neck and shoulders is myofascial release or foam rolling. Specific areas to target are the upper back, lats, mid-back, and chest.
When you find a sore spot, hold the ball or roller there and take at least five slow breaths before moving onto the next area.
Part Three: Strengthen
The key areas you need to strengthen are the muscles that stabilise your shoulder blades, your core and the front of your neck.
You can find instructions for Locust and Plank in this article: www.yoga15.com/blog/yoga-to-relieve-lower-back-pain. Hold them for as long as you can with proper form, drawing your shoulders away from your ears and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
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.
Other things you can do
Posture: One of the best things you can do for neck pain that takes neither time nor money is to work on improving your posture. If you notice that your head is jutting forward, make a mental note to draw it back. Put your hand to the back of your neck periodically throughout the day to check 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 and consciously try to let go of some of that 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.
Yoga: Practice 10–15 minutes of yoga every day to stay loose and relaxed and to let go of all that stress and tension you're holding onto unconsciously.
Other therapies: massage, sauna, ice baths, foam rolling, magnesium supplementation, Epsom salt baths, sensory deprivation tanks, taking time off to relax.
I have put together a 5-video mini-series to target pain and tightness in the neck, shoulders and upper back. You can find out more and watch your free 3-Minute Upper Body Mobility routine here: Yoga For The Neck And Shoulders