Biking isn’t only a great way to stay in shape, it can also be a lot of fun. And thanks to hundreds of bike lanes and more than 50 bike shares in cities around the country, it’s easier than ever to hit the road. However, even short rides can cause aches and pains in the neck, back, or below the belt—especially for new riders. “While some believe discomfort is inevitable, there are some simple adjustments that can make riding much more comfortable,” says Seattle-based physical therapist Erik Moen, founder of BikePT.com. These eight tips will help you have a more comfortable ride on the roads and trails.
1. Check Your Saddle
Sit on your bike while it’s secured in place to check the tilt of your seat. You should be able to pedal backward (hands-free) without feeling like you’re sliding forward or backward.
“If you’re not centered [on the saddle], you have to push or pull more on the handlebars, which affects [the placement of] your whole upper body,” Moen says. This can lead to more stress in those areas.
Saddle height matters, too. For the best fit, your legs should be almost-but-not-quite straight at the bottom of your pedal strokes.
2. Work Your Triceps
“Your triceps hold your position and support your weight against the bike. They also act as shock absorbers,” Moen says. “If you don’t have solid tricep strength, you’ll end up putting excess stress and strain on the shoulders and neck.”
Try adding some tricep-toning moves to your regular workout routine to help alleviate any upper-body discomfort. And while you’re at it, check your handlebar height and positioning: You should be able to reach the grips, breaks, and gear shifters without straining or stretching. (If you aren’t sure if your bike is set up correctly, consider getting a professional fitting.)
3. Shift Your Weight
If you’re going to be carrying things with you on your bike ride (like the clothes you’ll wear to work), avoid wearing a cross-body messenger bag, which can put an uneven strain on your shoulders. Instead, try a backpack, which evenly distributes weight. But any daily commuters with neck pain or anyone carrying heavy loads should consider moving their gear to pannier bags alongside the bike’s rear tire, or a basket in the front.
4. Stretch It Out
“Your head is heavy like a bowling ball,” Moen says, so holding it out and up in front of you (as you do on a road bike) can overextend and stiffen neck and back muscles. And the longer any given ride is, the more your bod’s bound to hurt afterward. “You wouldn’t expect to go for a two-hour run and not be sore the next day,” he adds, “but people always seem surprised when it happens to them on a bike.
To loosen up post-ride, bring your hands to meet behind your low back and clasp them together. Stretch for 30 seconds, alternating chin-to-chest, ears-to-shoulders, and looking left and right. Keep in mind these types of aches and pains are more common in newbies, so as with any sport, your muscles will adapt and hurt less as your body gets used to longer rides.
5. Ditch the Visor
Buying a helmet? Skip the ones with attached sun visors: you’ll have to lift your head higher, and thus strain your neck even further, to see out in front of you.
6. Use the Proper Gear
The first few times you take a long bike ride—especially if you’re on a road bike, which tend to have narrower seats—you’re bound to be sore in your sit bones and the surrounding area. Wearing bike shorts with a padded chamois (sometimes called a “shammy”) can make a huge difference. You can also buy creams that can reduce friction and chafing as you ride.
As for the rest of your clothes, you can probably get away with wearing normal clothes or office attire for casual riding or short bike commutes. But if you’re logging longer distances or upping the intensity of your ride, opt for a moisture-wicking cycling jersey (with back pockets to stash snacks), shorts or tights that won’t get in the way of your gears, and a top layer (or a pair of arm warmers) to shield you from gusting winds.
7. Ride the Right Bike
Don’t get us wrong: Any bike is a great bike—and if you want to ride to work on a high-performance road bike or do your first triathlon with a beach cruiser, we’re all for it. But if you do happen to be in the market for a new set of wheels, try to choose a bike that’s going to best fit your riding style.
If your main plans for your bike are to ride it to and from work, to visit friends or to run errands, look for a cruiser or city style with a wider, lower seat (so you can reach your feet to the ground when you’re stopped in traffic), plus an upright position and the option to add a basket or a pannier bag. For a bike you can ride for further distances or greater speeds, you’ll want a road bike that leans you forward in a more aerodynamic position. Looking for a little bit of both? Ask about hybrid styles.
8. Stand Up Straight
One of the biggest things you can do to improve your comfort level on your bike is sitting less, and stand more, during all those hours that you spend off it: “The biggest cause of neck pain often comes from what we’re doing the rest of the day, in terms of sitting too much and poor posture,” says Moen. “Being on a bike just tends to exasperate those existing problems, so if you can improve those habits you’ll feel better during and after those your rides.”