If you’ve ever woken up feeling tightness around your neck, back, hips, or knees you’ve probably searched for the culprit for those aches. One thing you should consider in the discomfort equation: your sleep position.

While the goal of quality rest is to wake up feeling refreshed, loose, and limber, that’s not always the case. And spending a lot of time in the saddle can contribute to a feeling of discomfort—and make any aches you experienced from your sleep even worse.

So, to help you determine the most optimal sleep positions for cyclists to avoid daily aches and pains, we chatted with experts to get tips on how to make sure your rest leads to more (not less) comfort on your rides.

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To Avoid Neck Pain: Maintain a Neutral Spine With More Support

demonstrating sleeping positions
Trevor Raab

Pain in the neck often comes from the position we hold looking at a phone or computer all day, but the posture we hold on a bike can also contribute to the aches. You can avoid your sleep position contributing to the pain even more by grabbing some support for the neck, says Shane Davis M.D., a physiatrist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. That support should come in the form of a comfortable pillow that helps you maintain a neutral neck position.

“The most important factor in terms of alignment ends up being the general height of your pillow, and then to some degree, the firmness,” Davis says. While everyone’s pillow preference varies, he suggests avoiding pillows stacked too high or too low, which puts the neck in a compromised position.

When setting up for a neutral neck position, think of the neck as if you are standing up and looking straight ahead with the ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, says Meghan Griech, D.P.T., physical therapist at The Restoration Space in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “That’s what you want to recreate while you’re sleeping using pillows or rolling up a towel to help support your neck.”

Griech suggests using a hand towel (rolled up from the short end) and placing it in the space between your ear and shoulder, as this can offer the support you need for your neck, as well as better spinal alignment. To keep the towel in place, she suggests putting it inside your pillow case. Oftentimes, this rolled towel works as well as an expensive memory foam pillow—just try out different sized towels, or determine if you need more than one, to hit that neutral position.

Finally, lying on your back or side makes achieving this neutral neck position much easier. “If you’re lying on your stomach with your neck turned to one side, that is probably the most difficult position on the neck in terms of maintaining a neutral position,” says Davis.

To Avoid Back Pain: Stretch Out

Back pain is a common complaint among cyclists. If you experience pain in the back when bending forward or backward, in particular, the most important thing to consider while you sleep is neutral spinal alignment. “That is generally best achieved if you’re lying on your back or on your side,” Davis says.

Keep in mind that cyclists spend a lot of time in a hunched over position—knees up, back rounded, shoulders positioned forward. So, lying on the back offers a good chance to stretch out the front of the body a little bit more, Davis adds.

Griech agrees that sleeping on your back could work for many cyclists to avoid aches, as it allows the hips, low back, and neck to stretch out, offering riders a different position than what they maintain on the bike. On the other hand, sleeping in the fetal position (as many do on their sides) can be very reminiscent of a riding position, and sleeping on your stomach could potentially put too much stress on joints like the neck, she says.

If you tend to wake up with low back achiness or tension, Griech suggests adding support under your knees. To do that, grab a smaller pillow (like a couch or lumbar pillow) and place it under the knees so they have just a slight bend. Ideally, you’ll do this while sleeping on your back.

Santhosh Thomas, D.O., interventional physiatrist with a special interest in spine and musculoskeletal medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute at the Center for Spine Health, says that if you do wake up with back stiffness or pain in the morning, it’s also smart to practice gentle stretches. You can even do them while you’re still in bed. For example, lie on your back and bring one knee gently toward the chest, holding it for few seconds. Then switch sides. Or, lying on your stomach, gently straighten your arms, lifting your upper body off the bed while keeping the legs in contact with the bed.

To Avoid Hip Pain: Check Your Sleep Position and Grab Support

demonstrating sleeping positions
Trevor Raab

As a cyclist, you might be familiar with tight hips. And depending on where your hip pain is, Davis says you might want to avoid sleeping on your side—especially if the pain is on the outside of the hip. If you are a regular side-sleeper, opt to lie on the side that doesn’t have pain or try to switch to sleeping on your back.

Davis also advises using a supportive pillow (your regular pillow or a smaller one—whichever feels better) between the knees if you sleep on your side and often experience hip pain. This can reduce the excess stretch of the muscles around the hips and knees; this stretch occurs when the knees come together and fall below the hips. With a pillow, you have better alignment of these joints.

“The outside part of the hip, referred to as the trochanter bursa, can sometimes get inflamed, especially if you’re a thin person and you’re sleeping on your side for too long,” says Thomas. So if you do suffer from hip pain, and side sleeping is your go-to position, you can also try to move around more in the middle of the night to avoid the pressure on your hips.

Thomas also advises ruling out issues related to the spine when it comes to hip pain. Some patients who present with hip pain may actually have spine issues, as degenerative changes in the spine and hip can mimic each other, he says. This is especially true if you’re experiencing pain into groin area and pain with changing positions.

To Avoid Knee Pain: Grab Another Pillow

demonstrating sleeping positions
Trevor Raab

When it comes to the knees, if you have pain around these joints, compression of the two bones coming together (as in, when you’re side sleeping) can lead to more discomfort, Davis says. To combat this, place a pillow between the knees for better alignment.

If you’re still waking up with aches, try sleeping on your back as it’s more of a neutral position for those with knee pain, Davis adds. You can still grab an extra pillow in this position, too, he suggests. Place it under the knees to allow for a slight bend, which takes some pressure off the joints.

Other Tips for Addressing Pain While You Sleep

1. Stretch before bed

Davis suggests stretching before bed to help you relax and loosen those muscles that might already be tight from your rides and other daily activities. He recommends gentle moves like cat/cow and or a gentle spinal twist while sitting or lying down. The figure four stretch for the glutes and hips (in which you cross one ankle over the opposite thigh) is another favorite.

For the neck, a simple chair stretch is a good go-to, David says. While seated with tall posture and relaxed shoulders, grip the left hand on the seat of the chair, place right hand on top of the head, and gently tilt head to right, stretching your neck on the left side. Hold, then repeat on the opposite side.

It’s also important that cyclists do hamstring and hip flexor stretching, as those muscles tighten up in the cycling position, Davis adds.

2. Change positions throughout the night

Most people will change positions throughout the night, and that’s a good thing as you’re giving the body a break from staying in one static posture for too long. Griech says that being in any position for too long—in your bed, your car, on your bike—can bring on aches and pains.

3. Check your mattress

Davis also says that the mattress you’re sleeping on will play a big role in your sleep comfort as well. If the mattress is too soft, you could sink in and exaggerate curves in the spine; if it’s too hard, you may experience excess pressure on the back, knees, hips or shoulders.

It’s always a good idea to try before you buy to determine your mattress preference, but as many companies now sell mattresses solely online, it’s smart to check their return policy before purchasing.

You also want to pay attention to the age of your mattress, as it will begin to lose its integrity after roughly five to seven years, Davis says. While there’s no magic number of a mattress’s lifespan, check yours for significant sinking or discomfort to determine that it’s providing the support you need.

4. Pay attention to posture outside of bed

Thomas suggests that cyclists pay attention to their posture during the day. When you’re out of the saddle, make sure that your shoulders are down and back, and you can sit and stand with head over shoulders, and shoulders over hips. Think about maintaining this tall, stacked posture while working at a desk or driving your car.

5. Focus on quality sleep

An important reminder: It’s more than just your sleep position that helps you feel your best. “The quality and quantity of sleep is probably the most important thing because sleep is when we repair and when we recover from workouts or injuries,” Davis says.

If changing your sleep position makes it difficult for you to sleep, then it might not be worth the adjustment. Try it out for a few nights and see how your rest responds.

6. Seek help

If you continue to experience consistent pain upon waking, despite causal approaches to healing (like those mentioned here), or if you have any kind of neurological challenges, like numbness, tingling, or weakness, it’s best to see a physician. This could signal that it’s more than just the way you’re sleeping, Thomas says.

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Jennifer Acker

Jennifer Acker joined the editorial staff of Runner's World and Bicycling in January 2022. A former freelancer writer and NCAA runner, she started running as a kid and basically never stopped. She also loves outdoor adventures, like hiking, skiing, and mountain biking.