Shermer’s neck – how I dealt with it

If you haven’t already seen the classic photo by Camille McMillian, this is the result and poor attempt I made in my first attempt, Transcontinental No.3 2015 to fix Shermer’s neck.

 

In 1982, Michael Shermer raced three others in the inaugural Race Across America. He didn’t make the distance and described what happened to him: “It’s a collapse in your neck muscles. You can’t hold your head up.”

I first experienced Shermer’s neck in 2015 during my first go at the Transcontinental Race (TCR). It had only briefly crossed my radar and I had dismissed it as a potential issue. After all, I was fit and young and had no problem with my neck! Anyway, in Montenegro, not too far from the finish in Istanbul, I scratched.

Following the race I spent hours researching how to ‘fix’ the issue; to prevent it re-occurring and just to be stronger. There’s never been medical research so there were no justified solutions. There was personal experience but not much because the number of people that have suffered the problem is very limited.  The really useful anecdotal evidence I found was from Felix Wong who started to suffer Shermer’s neck after 2,700 miles in the 2015 Trans America Bike Race. Felix Wong

With no clear solution, I decided to create a mind map of all the potential causes and then try to improve each, even if just a little, hoping an improvement in all areas would be enough.

Any advice here is given as a general guide and I STRONGLY recommend that you consult an expert in each area, as I have done over the years.

Also, dealing with and preventing Shermer’s neck is not a one time pill. For an ultra-distance cyclist, it’s a way of life. Just because you didn’t experience it for one race doesn’t mean it won’t occur in the future. Don’t be complacent.

Bike fit/position

This is a good place to start. Without a good fit, your body will not be happy. Issues that you might get away with on a short ride will undoubtedly flare up over 4,000km. With this in mind, your bike fit needs to be endurance appropriate. For example, aerobars are not just for being aero but also offer a comfortable and relaxed body position for long days in the saddle. A good bike fitter should be able to analyse your physical alignment, identify physical issues or weaknesses and offer guidance on how best to resolve them. My own body is far from symmetrical, which has been a challenge when I try to fit onto and pedal a symmetrical object.

Body strength

Many cyclists refuse to do body strength workouts, fearing they will put on muscle and weight. The opposite is true, they could in fact lose weight from the extra calories burnt during the workouts. Anyway, I’m not here to argue the benefit of strength work on cycling efficiency and power. I am talking about the benefit of such workouts on body strength. Racing 4,000km is a very particular physical challenge so you cannot train like a normal cyclist. Your body is not built to deliver the required strength so just riding a bike isn’t enough. You need to be forcing your body to be stronger. You don’t need to be doing bicep curls, butt planks, deadlifts, hollow body holds or kettlebell movements. I’m not an athletic coach and I recommend that you consult one. Yes, you should put on 2% body mass from extra muscle. You’ll be thankful for it when your knees hold strong and your strong core keeps your neck smooth.

Massage: Physiotherapy/osteopath

Self-massage is an essential part of the routine. Buy a foam roller and a massage ball, become good friends and keep your body loose and well oiled. A physio and osteopath is a nice addition if you can afford it. You’d take your car and pay for a service and your body is far more important. Don’t wait until something isn’t working, look after yourself. Massage might not directly make you more powerful, but it will help prevent injury and issue, keeping you training more consistently.

Rest

The first time I raced TCR, I barely slept before Shermer’s neck hit me; I think 1 hours 30 minutes was my longest sleep. Now, when racing, I will generally stop and sleep for 3 hours, and up to 5 if needed. The old tale of the tortoise and the hare; sometimes you need to spend some time to save some time. Also consider your resting location, I often opt for a hotel now, for a comfortable bed is a lot better place to rest than a hard concrete floor. I wrote about this in my ‘Power of Recovery’ blog from TCR5 in 2017.

Helmet

A helmet is a legal requirement in the race, so don’t wear one that’s heavy. In TCR 2016 I had one that was 300g, now it’s 190g, that’s a 34% reduction in mass, significant! Also consider ventilation, it will get hot and ensuring your body keeps cool is essential. I would not recommend a helmet light or camera, unless for short periods and when it’s needed for safety.

Hydration/nutrition

Racing across a continent does not lend itself to high class nutrition. That said you can try and eat as well as possible. Beyond this, consider taking multivitamin tables. Further electrolytes are very important, everyone sweats at a different rate and saline composition, and you need to ensure you’re replacing lost salts. When it’s 50 degrees C (TCR5) you’ll stop sweating, it’s so hot. Keep an eye on your body.

Cycling kit

Kit too tight, heavy, or badly fitting isn’t going to leave your body feeling comfortable.