My Experience with Shermer’s Neck
When I arrived in Pittsburg, Kansas during the 2015 Trans Am Bike Race, I had biked 2,700 miles in 13 days. This was enough to catch up to all the leaders of the race except for one (Jesse Carlsson, the eventual winner), and the plan was to keep up the miles, stay disciplined, and race ahead. The last few days I felt I was being extremely effective in the aerobars, and even climbing well once the course started undulating a little east of Newton, Kansas.
But it was the morning after Pittsburg that I started to notice an odd problem: when I was in the aerobars, I could no longer see the road as easily as in the last few days. I couldn’t lift my head quite high enough and had to roll my eyeballs up as high as possible, which was uncomfortable. What I didn’t realize at the time was I was experiencing the onset of Shermer’s Neck. That morning after Pittsburg would the last time I’d be able to use the aerobars at all.
The Progression of Shermer’s Neck
According to this article on Active.com about Shermer’s Neck, the symptoms hit ultra-distance cyclists suddenly, with little warning. “It is not a gradual ailment,” states the article. “After first feeling the symptoms, the neck will usually give out within two hours.”
That was not true in my case—Shermer’s Neck came on by degrees. When I first started noticing I was not able to see the road very well in the aerobars, I switched to the hoods. I rode the hoods for many hours, I think, until sometime later that day or evening, I had to switch to the bar tops. When I got a motel in Houston, Missouri, at around 11:30 p.m. that night, I had ridden 179 miles. I was disappointed with that mileage considering I had ridden 260, 275, and 200 miles the preceding days, but considering how hilly and hot the Ozark Hills were and my late (7:00 a.m., I think) start, this was actually a decent distance.
It was the next morning that my neck was screaming in pain. Faced with more of the Ozark Hills and 90-degree heat, I struggled to make it to Summersville, Missouri. When I did, I had to take a prolonged break. My neck had completely given out. At a gas station stop, I rested for two hours while icing the neck, refueling and discussing the neck problem with the sympathetic shop owner named Deanna and her family, all while seeing racers Adrian O’Sullivan and Donccha Cuttriss pass by outside the window. I had been far behind them for the first 12.5 days and was only ahead for 1, and now I was behind again. It was the last time I would see them.
I ended up only covering 68 miles that day due to stopping at a motel in Ellington and icing and sleeping for 12 hours. No longer was I focused on catching the leading riders. Now I was concerned about being able to finish the race at all. There were still 1200 miles to go.
With my hands placed on the arm rests of the aerobars, I was able to see the road, if barely. That enabled me to ride 200 and 170 miles the next couple days—the latter in what I’d term limp mode. This gave me encouragement that I could make it to the end with the bum neck while doing ok mileage. However, Shermer’s neck continued to get worse.
During a stretches of road after Utica, Kentucky, I was riding like an open-water swimmer: head down most of the time but bobbing the head up every so often to glance at what was ahead. Obviously, this was not very safe. Eventually I had to come up with a better solution. I thought about how I could give myself a hand position to allow my body to sit upright, as even riding with my hands on the top of the aerobar armrests was still too much of an aggressive position for Shermer’s neck. There was no way I could raise the handlebars due to the threadless headset, and a bike shop was nowhere around to sell me an adjustable stem. I briefly considered rotating the handlebars 180 degrees so the bar drops would be higher and facing towards me, but decided against it since that would only give an addition four or five inches of height, plus it would negate the use of the bar-end mirror—which I needed now more than ever to look behind me because I could no longer turn my head.
Ultimately, I decided to try rotating the aerobars 90 degrees so they would be vertical:
How did this work? Initially, brilliantly. In fact, after riding for 20 miles with my hands on the top of the aerobars, I tweeted:
Vertical aerobars worked! Totally unaero and like cruiser but comfy & can see the road. Smile on face whole last hour
Once in a while I come up with ideas better than microwaving socks
This enabled me to ride 140 miles and 169 miles on Days 18 and 19, but Shermer’s Neck was still severely affecting my riding. During subsequent days it seemed to affect me worse. The limitations it imposed included:
- Riding in such an upright position was essentially air braking. It made a profound reduction in speed compared to the aero positions I had maintained during the first couple weeks of the race.
- I could not generate much power in such an upright position, as I wasn’t really engaging my core muscles.
- I could not brake or shift from this position. Any time I would have to do so, I’d have to lean a far distance to grab the hoods and brake or shift, all while not being to see the road since I was no longer upright.
- I could not descend well. Not only was I air braking, but when the descent was steep or curvy enough, I needed to cover or apply the brakes for safety. Bu this would require my hands to be on the brake hoods and not see the road while sitting on the saddle. The only way I could look ahead with my hands in this position was to stand with my crotch pressing against the stem. But then all my weight was far forward and I was at risk of endo-ing if I applied the front brake. But using the rear brake was ineffective with such front weight bias. I nearly skidded out twice on wet roads descending at 8 MPH while feathering the rear brake.
- I could not stand to climb. This is because doing so would require my hands to be on the brake hoods or drops (I could not rock the bike back and forth with my hands on the top of the vertical aerobars), and standing on the pedals while pedaling would still require too much of a forward lean and prevent me from seeing the road. (I could not turn the pedals while standing with my crotch pressed against the stem as I did while descending).
- I could not see the mirror in the upright sitting position. That, coupled with not being able to turn my head, meant that I could not look for traffic behind me. This prevented me from merging into roads to make left turns, for example. To safely make a left turn, I would unclip and stop (usually at the other side of an intersection), pick up my bike and turn it 90 degrees to be directed toward the turn, and then ride straight towards that turn.
- I no longer had access to my snack box, and I no longer could eat as easily while riding. (The snack box gave me a place to stash, say, the uneaten parts of a cookie or energy bar in between bites instead of having to hold them in my hand.) I often had to stop off the road for safety’s sake in order to eat.
- I could not read the GPS unit on the aerobars when the aerobars were vertical. I had to stop in order to read it, again slowing me down. (A few days later, I’d lose GPS navigation entirely in a thunderstorm due to forgetting to cover it with a plastic bag.)
- For me, Shermer’s neck was painful. I even resorted to taking Advil (2-4 tablets a day) for the first time in a cycling event to try to dull the pain, but it was ineffective. The Active.com article stated that Shermer’s Neck is not painful for all cyclists who get it, but in my case it was.
You can easily see, then, how Shermer’s Neck was single-handedly responsible for the severe drop-off in daily mileage that last week of riding.
What could have been some other solutions, then? One I tried on the final night of the race was using a neck brace, which I picked up at a CVS Pharmacy with 90 miles to go. I tried to position it so that it would push up my head, but it wasn’t effective. Despite using it at night, all it did was cause overheating. I discarded it after 40 miles.
Another was using my left fist to prop up my head while riding. I actually did this a lot the last two days because even while riding with my hands on the vertical handlebars and sitting upright, I was starting to have some problems seeing the road towards the end!
Other solutions I read about included:
- (A long-haired woman with Shermer’s Neck): Braid the hair and tie to a bra or heart rate monitor.
- Pull the back of the head/helmet with duct tape towards your butt.
- Rig some sort of pole attached to the body to prop up the head.
- Rotate and use the aerobars as a sort of chin rest.
I didn’t bother to try such solutions, either deeming them too impractical or inconvenient. Also note that no Trans Am Bike Race cyclists were allowed to have crews, and setting such systems up by myself would have been difficult with hand and other injuries.
Oh well. While I was disappointed that Shermer’s Neck prevented me from being competitive during the last thousand miles of the race, I am happy and relieved it ultimately did not prevent me from finishing. I still managed to arrive at the end in Yorktown in 8th place, mainly losing one otherwise likely position to Paul Spencer, who caught and passed me in Christiansburg, Virginia, with 368 miles to go. I also finished only about two days after my goal time and one day beyond my predicted time.
What Triggered Shermer’s Neck?
The following may be reasonable theories as to why I got Shermer’s Neck when I did.
- Too much time in the aerobars: I was staying low in the aerobars through most of eastern Colorado and all of Kansas. While this allowed me to pour on the miles in those places, being so aero strained the neck muscles since I had to really tilt my head up to see ahead.
- Not enough rest: To catch up to the leaders, I was sleeping only 3-5 hours a night.
- Too much weight on helmet: The timing may be a coincidence, but the first day I was starting to experience the onset of Shermer’s Neck, I had just attached an LED headlamp I bought at Walmart at 2:00 in the morning to the front of my helmet since I needed more lighting at night. The headlamp weighed only a few ounces but perhaps was enough to “break the camel’s neck.”
- History of neck issues: Twice earlier in the year, my neck was really stiff due to sleeping on it wrong or bad posture in front of the computer. Maybe this made me more susceptible to Shermer’s Neck.
Preventing Shermer’s Neck
As far as I know, the only people who can get Shermer’s Neck are cyclists. Also, the only cyclists at risk of getting Shermer’s Neck are those who do races of 500 miles or more (note it took 2900 miles of a 4200-mile bike race for me to get it). Due to these requirements, I am guessing that no more than a dozen people get Shermer’s Neck in a given year—or maybe a few dozen during a Paris-Brest-Paris year. I don’t think any of the other 40 cyclists got Shermer’s Neck in the 2015 Trans Am Bike Race.
No one knows what specifically causes Shermer’s Neck for sure aside from “excessive cycling.” But I will go ahead and suggest the following to prevent it:
- Obvious one: don’t bike so much!
- For ultra-distance events, set up your bicycle for a less aggressive position.
- Try not to strain the neck muscles. This includes not wearing a backpack or having too much weight in your jersey pockets, or staying in the aerobars too much.
- Keep the weight (such as helmet and helmet accessories) on your head as low as possible.
- Do neck stretches on and off the bike.
- Try to get “enough” sleep.
Update June 2016: I have encountered a compelling article about how RAAM crew member and Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT), Sue Morris, came up with a successful treatment and prevention plan for racers who had experienced Shermer’s Neck in previous RAAMs. It entailed massage therapy for knots in two front neck muscles—sternocleidomastoid or SCM and scalenes—before and during the race. Her recommendation is for ultra-cyclists who have experienced any sort of neck trouble in the past to have an LMT do massage on these neck muscles two or three times a week six months before the race, and to have a LMT as part of the crew during the race.
Of course, in the Trans Am Bike Race there are no crews. Massage two or three times a month for six months also gets awfully expensive. Therefore, it is probably best to learn how to do self-massage of the SCM and scalene muscles, maybe using the thumbs or some sort of handheld massage ball.
I have a Dynaflex massage ball roller that I am going to experiment with. It is small enough for bikepacking and weighs 130 grams (4.5 ounces).
Recovering from Shermer’s Neck
A full night’s sleep will not heal Shermer’s Neck. But the Active.com article said it usually heals on its own—as defined as “neck muscles return to full strength”—within a few weeks.
In my case, my neck felt 80% recovered a week after finishing the race. A 90-minute, light-pressure massage with healing essential oils by my favorite massage therapist a few days after the race seemed to help dramatically with neck mobility and reduction in pain.
I think my neck was close to 100% normal after 10-14 days, but it is hard to say for sure especially since I have not ridden a bicycle since finishing the race in Yorktown five weeks ago.
Updates Many Months Later
[November 2, 2015] I went for my first bike ride since finishing the Trans Am Bike Race 125 days earlier. After Mile 1 of the ride—in which I was riding in the aerobars—my neck was already hurting. By the end of the 10-mile ride, my neck was very sore and remained that way for the rest of the night. Needless to say this was very discouraging.
[Early 2016] I tried again. After a few more short rides, I was no longer noticing any soreness. Maybe it took my body a little while to get reacquainted with bicycling since I had not done so for so many months, even though prior to TABR I had ridden in very aggressive cycling positions for well over two decades without neck pain.
[May 2016] I would say the neck has no problems—although I have yet to do a ride over 35 miles. Will update this page again once I do my annual double century ride, maybe this summer.
[July 2016] Success! I rode to Walden and back (200 miles) without any neck pain whatsoever!
[August 2017] I have ridden three double centuries this year. I had no neck pain during them at all despite no change in bike or bike position since the 2015 Trans Am Bike Race, or getting preventative massages. I can pretty confidently say I don’t think I’m at risk of Shermer’s Neck again unless I decide to bike some crazy distance well over 200 miles.
There are 18 comments.
Many thanks for sharing your story! As one of the many couch potatoes that checked the live tracking regularly during the Trans Am, I was hoping you could pull off a top three finish. But, reading your sage it was clearly a huge accomplishment to finish. Congratulations and many thanks for all your great posts!
Aw, thanks Steve! I hope I didn't disappoint too many. As the second-placed American for most of the race, I was hoping (planning) on making a run towards the leading internationals, but my body just fell apart during the last week. :(
I am sure you disappointed no one, save your self, Felix. It was an amazing show of endurance and strength you exhibited. Like Steve, I too was rooting for you, but never disappointed. You rock!
I've had this symptom ten days after hiking and camping winter above arctic circle, it was so painful indeed and like your head was not part of your body !
Hi Van. Thanks for stopping by my website and for your comment.
I stand corrected about only getting Shermer's Neck, then! How and when did yours occur? Was it just by hiking for long periods of time? Is it better now? How long did it take to heal?
Hope it is all better now!
Sounds like this ride left you with some seriously limiting long-term injuries. Have you considered trying a high-end recumbent as you continue to heal, something along the lines of a Bacchetta CA2, a Schlitter Encore, or a Cruzbike Vendetta? A bike such as these would allow you to continue cycling long distances at reasonable speed without aggravating your neck and wrists or causing saddle sores. You could always return to a standard road bike later, if you decided recumbents weren't your cup of tea.
Yep, I have a Reynolds Wishbone recumbent, which I've ridden over a half dozen double centuries on. It's still in my stable of bicycles but has mostly been relegated to the trainer in the basement or the Tour de Fat nowadays, although I did ride it to Walden, CO and back a couple years ago (another 200-mile ride). It's fun in its own way but for hilly courses like the Trans Am Bike Race, I definitely prefer my regular bicycles.
I've fully recovered from my injuries so I would tag them more as short- and medium-term injuries, and I think I can mitigate or eliminate them on future super long rides. Shermer's Neck worries me the most but at least it seemed like I was able to ride 2900 miles almost non-stop before getting it!
Hi Felix! I have read your experience with the Shermer´s neck. This year I have raced the Tour Divide. I suffered the Shermer´s neck for two days. Then I dicided to stop. After a complete rest for 1 day and a half, I finished without problems. I thought that my neck was ok, but after two months, when I ride my roadbike i feel my neck tired... Even after running I feel my neck tired. How did you recovered? I don´t know if it is better to have a complete rest or for example do some exercise for my neck. Thank you very much.
Hi Unai. Thanks for stopping by my blog and for your comment. Congrats on finishing the Tour Divide... with Shermer's neck, no less. So it sounded like staying off the bike for 1.5 days was enough to prevent it from reoccurring during the race? That is great. I probably should add that anecdote to my blog post.
Anyhow, to answer your question about neck recovery, I sort of had a similar experience to you. After maybe a week or two after the Trans Am Bike Race (which included one 90-minute massage session which really helped), I thought my neck was totally fine. However, for other injuries (like numb hands) and life circumstances (living in another city for a while), I did not bike at all until four months afterwards.
When I did, when I rode my road bike my neck was very tired. It was very discouraging.
I had similar experiences in subsequent rides, but by maybe the fourth or fifth ride my neck was no longer a problem. I have since done a 200-mile long ride and did not have a neck issue.
So I think due to all the time off the bike, my neck muscles weakened and needed to re-acclimate to the biking position?
I think at this point for you it might be better to do some stretches and exercises for your neck. There are some bicycling-related YouTube videos for your neck that you can look up and try. If you find a stretch or exercise that is effective, please let me know.
Also, I would recommend treating yourself to a massage with focus on the SCM and scalene muscles of the neck. From what I understand, it's the knotting and fatiguing of these muscles that causes Shermer's neck.
I have experienced Shermer's Neck for awhile, and had to go back to my hybrid since it was much worse on my road bike. The issue I have is that even when I am off the bike, I have terrible neck strain (perhaps due to working long hours in front of the computer), coupled with dizziness and lightheadedness. My mileage is atrocious, and even though I do exercises for my neck, it gets slightly better, then always gets worse, whether I ride or not.
Hi! I experienced a Shermer neck during Tour Divide 2016 (June). Since then I haven't recovered completely. I have ride very little my road bike, 7 times in a year since July of 2016. I spend a lot of hours in front of the computer. Now I run, to keep fit, but I'd like to ride again my bike.. Have you discover something that it worked with you?
For me, it now always kicks in after 35 miles. I limped through California AIDS Lifecycle last year with the help of twice-daily massages, but it wasn't fun. There seems to be a lot of ignorance about it.
Hi, If you look up the few people that are trained in the Emmett Technique in the States, (there are many more across the world) they may be able to help. I say may because I don't think that the technique and the condition have met up so far, but I know that within the Emmett Practioners, of which I'm one, we have been able to some good successes on issue that have not been helped by more known massage approaches. emmett-uk.com gives an overview of the technique, which uses just touch to reset the muscles. Sorry about the plug but it may help a few people.
Thanks for the tip, Neil. The videos of the Emmett Technique look promising and worth exploring. It could be particularly helpful if a cyclist could learn how to apply this technique to him- or herself during the onset of Shermer's Neck.
Hi there! I recently completed the Moab 240 mile trail run and experienced what I am assuming was Shermer?s Neck. I was about 90 hours in when my neck muscles failed. It seemed ok while hiking but no matter how hard I tried I could not keep my head up while running. I had had maybe 45 min sleep altogether at this point. It wasn?t painful, just frustrating. And it seems to be ok now. Just thought I?d share.
Sharing my experience this summer with Shermers:
BNSUS 2019 a 3500 mile unsupported mixed terrain race from Portland Oregon to Washington DC is almost a month behind me and i still have a few nagging overuse injuries including some lingering numbness in the toes and most irritatingly an incredibly stubborn stiff neck. Last week I went out for a ride but only lasted 30 km before my neck and back started to hurt. Perhaps this can be expected of someone who is pushing 55 years of age.
After substantial research this past week, I am convinced that I was suffering from Shermers neck for most of BNSUS. I have always had a soft core and back which are both risk factors for this condition however I have never had symptoms previously but again I also had never completed a 3500 mile race previously consistently riding 100 or 150 miles per day on multiple consecutive days. Also upon returning my spouse immediately noticed my difficulty in keeping my head and back straight after returning to Montreal.
Shortly after Arco Idaho about 800 miles into the race following a 260 km day previously I started to have difficulty keeping my head upright in my aero bars. No pain but just a feeling of fatigued back and neck muscles. I had read about Shermers neck from accounts of other racers in Transam and RAAM but had dismissed this due to the rarity of the condition. I ditched my camelback thinking this may be a factor and stopped carrying any gear or food on my back rather strapping extras onto my saddlebag.
I may also have been in denial but after dropping from Transam the previous year due to injury, nothing short of a catastrophic event would keep me from finishing this race. For the next two days through Rexburg, Jackson and on to Dubois wyoming I road primarily with my hands part time on the hoods and part time holding onto the arm rests of my aerobars trying to keep my back straight so I could see ahead. Over time it also became difficult to look backwards when merging in traffic and I found myself relying more and more on my bar mirror to observe traffic coming from behind.
I was pretty pleased with my performance to this point despite issues with my tires and I was still in the middle of the pack averaging about 220 km per day.
From Shoshoni Wyoming about one third into the race I was riding in an upright position virtually 100% of the time with my hands on the aerobars arm rests, only leaning forward to brake or change gears. Although not a huge issue for the rest of Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa flat terrain , this became more of an issue as I moved into The Missouri hills where I started to fall behind the pack.
Over the next 15 days, I spent most of my time staring at my Garmin or the road only lifting my head maybe every couple of minutes to see what was ahead.
Again, I must have been in denial as I never considered the possibility of Shermers for the rest of the race. I also was under the impression that Shermers resulted in a complete failure of muscles forcing the racer to retire in the absence of hardware to keep the head upright. However since, I have read of several racers including Felix Wong in Transam 2017 completing their event despite Shermers.
Each morning, the neck would feel fine until about 20 minutes in when I would revert back to the aerobars rests. In Sedalia, I turned my handlebars 45 degrees upwards just to be closer to the hoods to help with shifting and braking. I wish I had more pictures of me on and off the bike so I could analyze my head position. No pain, just an inability to keep my head upright when in a forward leaning position. If any of the other racers that I saw post Nebraska noticed anything about my head position on the bike, would love to hear it. In Ohio I decided to ditch my front helmet light thinking this may be a contributing factor.
I did manage to finish being the last one to arrive in Washington and expected my neck pain to dissipate once off the bike but unfortunately I am not sure I will be able to do any long distances for a while as the stiffness and weakness lingers. I have started multiple stretching exercise which do illicit pain in both the neck and back and I do feel some improvement despite the incessant cracking during the exercises.
I attribute my neck pain whether Shermers or not to a few things that can be adjusted to lower future risk.
1. Remove both front and back helmet lights. I weighed my helmet and lights and it totals almost 600g which I am sure the neck is not designed to carry day after day. I will buy a lighter helmet as well to stay at or under 200g.
2. I have always had a soft core and back problems previously. Strengthening core and back before a race would undoubtedly decrease the risk.
3. Either decrease time in aero position and do not overextend your ability in the first week of the race. It?s a marathon not a sprint. Slightly lower mileage early on especially as a newcomer to ultra-endurance racing can avoid issues later in the race.
4. I have not been able to find any info on treatment of Shermers but I am sure regular stretching will lead to recovery. If anyone has some tips, I would be happy to hear them.
Just one of the many lessons I learned in my first completed race. At some point, I will need to put pen to paper on everything I would do differently next time around.
Hi Felix, How I wish I'd read this before setting out for PBP 2019 !!! But then, you really believe that you're invincible till it hits you. I was probably afflicted by the fast acting Shermer virus!!! I was down and out within about two hours. Had completed 930 kms of the 1200 and was well within time - the next 35 odd kms took me almost 2.5 hours. In the meanwhile, I had also picked up a neck brace, but as you said, it didnt really help and became more of a hindrance. Finally, the unbearable pain and the inherent safety issues (riding through the night) convinced me to call it off - 964 kms. Too close, yet so far.....
Its been a month since then and got onto the saddle for the first time today. 20 odd kms ride - some discomfort is still there. Ill take succor from your experience and the give the bike another spin, probably tomorrow and see how it pans out.....
What a bummer about getting Shermer?s Neck at PBP! Sounds like you had a little less than a double century remaining, but that is still a long ways to go with the pain and not being able to pick up your head. Glad it has mostly subsided by now. Treat your self to a massage and have the therapist really work on your neck; it did wonders for mine!
Will you try again in four years? If so, I?d suggest bringing something to massage the neck muscles just in case, even if it?s something as simple as a golf ball. (A friend swears by a lacrosse ball.)
That said, I hope you never get Shermer?s Neck ever again! It has never returned for me, but since the Trans Am Bike Race I have not ridden anything longer than a double century.