Mountain bike shoulder/neck pain?
December 7, 2011 3:12 AM   Subscribe

I commute to work by bicycle, and I've noticed that my shoulders and neck are often sore at the end of my 45-minute ride. What am I doing wrong?

I'm 6' tall and my bike is this one. It has 26' wheels. I have the seat raised up rather high, level with the handlebars, because I want to get a full leg extension when I pedal. This gives me more control and more power. I would like to raise the handlebars higher, but no can do. I'd have to replace the handlebars entirely, or replace the bike entirely, both I am not wanting to do.

Is there anything I can do to ease the strain on my shoulders and neck?
posted by zardoz to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You should get a proper fitting at a bike shop; they might spot where your riding position is off. My guess is that you're up higher on your seat, therefore transferring more of your weight forward and your shoulders are playing a stronger role in keep you stable.

Also, are you commuting with a backpack? Depending on the weight distribution there, you may find a different pack will ease some of the pain on your shoulders.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 3:42 AM on December 7, 2011

you may find a different pack will ease some of the pain on your shoulders.

Or panniers - they made my commute way more comfortable.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:46 AM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

I recently got my (road) bike professionally fitted, and it has made a huge difference--my neck and shoulder pain are almost completely gone. You may be doing the same thing I was doing, which is riding in too much of a bent-forward position so that you have to lift your head up to see the road ahead. In my case, the provisional solution was to replace not the handlebars but the stem, so that they could be raised higher AND moved a tiny bit closer to my hips. I also have been working on straightening out my lower back as I ride, which helps align my shoulders and neck, but I would not be able to make this change in posture if I hadn't moved the bars up and back. In addition to replacing the stem so you can adjust the bars, you could try tweaking the forward/back position of your seat, but be aware that this might change the pedaling angle of your legs for the worse.
posted by Orinda at 3:54 AM on December 7, 2011

Have a look at this frame size calculator. It should give you some idea of whether your current bike's frame size (38cm) is appropriate. I suspect your bike may be much too small for you.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:03 AM on December 7, 2011

I wear my backpack sometimes, and sometimes strap it to the back rack. I'll put it on the rack for now and see if that changes anything. I'll see about lowering the seat. The problem with that is I'll lose power and control if my leg doesn't extend that much less.
posted by zardoz at 4:13 AM on December 7, 2011

you *can* raise your handlebars by replacing the stem (the part that connects the handlebars to the steerer tube). here's an example. just check with a bike shop to make sure you order one with the right diameter for your handlebars, as there are several different standard diameters.

Sheldon Brown's website is an excellent resource for your question. Here are his comments on potential causes of neck and shoulder pain, which are mostly about riding posture, which assumes a properly fitted bike.

personally i find riding with a backpack okay for short rides but painful to my back for rides longer than say 30 minutes.
posted by moss free at 4:24 AM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding a new stem - doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming. That'll shift your weight from your arms to your legs/ass.

Definitely stow your load on the bike, not your back.
posted by dickasso at 4:47 AM on December 7, 2011

Seconding panniers. I never knew arrivals could be so unsweaty.
posted by rhymer at 5:30 AM on December 7, 2011

it sounds like you need to do 2 things: get a new (higher) stem, and stop using the backpack on your back. I do not use a backpack because I ride mostly road geometry, and the lower head position on those frames creates a lot of strain on my neck and shoulders to look up because the shoulder straps pull on my traps and under my armpits in that case, and there are quite a few sensitive spots in those muscle groups that can cause tension and pain in random ways if they get pissed off. So use the rack, and/or maybe consider a messenger bag (the diagonal shoulder strap on a messenger bag works better for a more horizontal / head lower riding positions as it doesn't interfere with the neck as much).

Bike fit isn't just about leg length, and I've gone on and on about this here before in bike fitting related threads. Probably the most important, and most frequently overlooked component of bike fit is the rider's fore-aft balance on the bike; i.e. the bike's length. Your centre of gravity should sit right over the bottom bracket (where the chainset meets the frame).

It sounds like there is a chance your bike might be too small. You need to even out your weight distribution so that you've got a more even balance between pedals, bars and seat. This does a world of good for eliminating neck, back and shoulder pain.

Any bike shop worth their salt should be able to swap out stems and do some adjustments to the saddle (fore-aft, maybe change the seatpost) to fix this. Unless the bike frame itself is just flat out too small, in which case, you may not ever get to 100% good on this frame.
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:32 AM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

In addition to the excellent advice on Sheldon Brown's site, to which moss free linked, you should take a look at Peter White's advice on fitting. Read it carefully. If you get a professional fitting, keep in mind that many bike fitters will treat you as if you are going to be racing.

Bar ends can help give you another hand position, which can help with muscle fatigue. And as lonefrontranger said, any good bike shop could put a higher and/or longer stem on that bike, to get the handlebars higher up or further forward. Beyond a certain point you can't make a bike fit you if it's too small, but sometimes a couple little changes can make a world of difference.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:59 AM on December 7, 2011

Your bike fit doesn't sounds to far off what it would be on a fairly racy set-up to be honest. Swapping out the stem for one with a higher angle would help with the problem, but how long have you been riding this bike? It may be that your body simply isn't used to such an aggressive riding position and you're resting too much of your weight on your hands.

You mileage may differ (ha ha), but on my road bike my saddle is actually above my handle bars; the relational position of the handlebar and saddle shouldn't automatically cause pain. It may be your core strength is a bit weak, causing you to lean too heavily on the handlebars. Some of these exercises may help to improve it.

I definitely second get rid of the backpack though.
posted by fatfrank at 6:15 AM on December 7, 2011

How is your posture on the bike? Try and keep your back straight instead of hunched, and relax and drop your shoulders instead of tensing them upwards.
posted by exogenous at 6:21 AM on December 7, 2011

In addition to the excellent advice that other folks have offered, I wonder how strong and flexible your back is. Doing some light stretching (and/or some core-strength exercises) might be another thing that would improve your riding comfort.
posted by box at 6:57 AM on December 7, 2011

I have found that (1) getting used to the position, which simply takes time/miles on the bike and (2) doing some shoulder/neck strengthening exercises regularly help a lot. I just do some basic sets of shoulder shrugs and other exercises like that with some hand weights. Core strengthening may help too.
posted by misskaz at 7:36 AM on December 7, 2011

Something that I have noticed with all these suggestions is that nobody has apparently clicked through to the bike in question, which leads to the cheapest kind of wal-mart full-suspension bike. It weights over 40 pounds (18.3 kg). I wouldn't put another dime into adding a component to this bike, since a 20-30 dollar stem is going to be worth more than the rest of the bike.

OP, I know you don't want to replace the bike, but it sounds like you have a bicycle that just doesn't fit you. You could spend money adding bits and pieces that might make it fit a little better(stem, handlebar, etc) but in the end, you would be throwing good money after bad. The bike will break shortly in some irreparable way(these bikes are not expected to be repaired), and then all you have is a stem. Also, that kind of terrible full suspension is going to have you bouncing all over the place, and constantly changing your body position and stealing your energy away- that would make MY back hurt, no matter the rest of the geometry.

I don't know if there are community bike shops in Tokyo(which is where your profile says you are), or what the used bike market is like, but it might be worth checking it out to see what your options are for decent, no suspension, used commuting bikes and also used components. You don't want to be buying new components for this bicycle, and you might find yourself a good deal if you do some looking around.
posted by rockindata at 7:41 AM on December 7, 2011

You mileage may differ (ha ha), but on my road bike my saddle is actually above my handle bars; the relational position of the handlebar and saddle shouldn't automatically cause pain. It may be your core strength is a bit weak, causing you to lean too heavily on the handlebars. Some of these exercises may help to improve it.

How much pressure is on your wrists/arms/shoulders depends a lot on how hard you're riding. Pedaling harder reduces pressure on the arms. On a slow commute even a racer is probably going to be more comfortable on a bike with higher bars.

Were it me, I'd get those bars up higher and switch over to drop bars if possible. The typical hand position on mountain bike bars is rotten because it really encourages you to ride with your arms straight and your wrist/elbow/shoulders locked up rather than using your muscles. Riding on the hoods of drop bars, your hands are sideways, elbows nice bent, and you're using your arm muscles for support/cushioning.
posted by pjaust at 7:58 AM on December 7, 2011

Agreeing on stem height---a personal complaint is that bikes are too often sold with handlebars low. This is fine for competition, but less so for the non-racers among us. In my experience most commuters are happier with the bars at or perhaps an inch above the seat height, essentially Sheldon Brown's recommendation.

Also, if you still have the stock tires with knobby treads, change them to slick ones. Smooth tires grip better and are safer on roads; are faster and easier to pedal; and, most importantly for you, greatly reduce vibration, in turn reducing hand and shoulder stress.
posted by bonehead at 8:34 AM on December 7, 2011

Also, you're right about seat height. That's pretty much determined by how long your inseam is and shouldn't be fiddled with beyond that. Change the front part of the bike, not the seat tube.
posted by bonehead at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2011

the cheapest option here is to buy one of those super long movable stems. This way you can get the handles bars way up to a more City / Commuter / Dutch bike posture.

like these highrise adjustable stems

posted by mary8nne at 8:53 AM on December 7, 2011

rockindata, I did indeed click through. The OP said replacing the bike was not an option. To be frank, most bike shops around here would be reluctant to work on a bike of that quality, but I am not about to open that can of worms here.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:54 AM on December 7, 2011

Why don't you want to replace the handlebars? I can understand why you wouldn't want to replace the bike. However, just in case you're under the impression that handlebar replacement would be expensive or difficult--it usually isn't.

If you do prefer a more upright riding style, you can use handlebars that have more rise and sweep.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:37 PM on December 7, 2011

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