The Planet Wave: Sitting Can Put a Big Hurt on Your Running
by Bob "Wish" Wischnia on November 7, 2012
I certainly don't make any claims about being one of the greatest runner on the planet, but there is one area I have always excelled: I get injured in the craziest ways. Sure, I have made all the typical mistakes—overtraining, too many races, too much speed--and suffered the logical consequences, but I have also found all sorts of unique ways to get hurt.
Just in the past couple of years, I have hurt my back by sneezing too hard, tweaked a hamstring by doing a flip turn in the pool and inexplicably, strained a calf muscle by drinking warm Gatorade on a long run. Then, there was the time I broke a toe when I smashed my foot into a curb on an early-morning run. But I recently injured myself in an entirely new way that tops all the other stupid ones: Sitting.
That's right. You read it correctly. A couple of weeks ago, I strained my glutes by not doing anything more strenuous than sitting on my bony butt. After working without moving for several hours, I finished the project and when I tried to get up, my glutes were so locked, I missed several days of running.
And, if what I understand is true, prolonged sitting might be the most hazardous thing we do. In addition to running injuries, sitting can also cause even runners to gain extra weight which isn't offset by running and watching what you eat.
If you're anything at all like me, you probably spend a good portion of your day staring at a computer. Often, when I'm working, I'll be sitting in virtually the same position for three or four uninterrupted hours without moving.
As I have discovered the hard way, sitting for such long periods is just about the worst thing I can do to my running body. I am not alone in this regard. One of my running buddies—a software engineer who can knock out 2:50 marathons like clockwork--is also on the injury list, in part, because the only time all day he moves is to go home. Once there, he immediately pulls out his laptop to answer the e-mails he didn't have time for at work.
As runners, we're used to constant, continual movement. But we don't do so well when we sit for an hour or longer. When we do, some of our prime running muscles—the glutes, hip flexors and psoas—tend to relax and stop firing because we are sitting and at rest and those muscles don't have much of anything to do. So, they go silent.
When those muscles stop being triggered, the muscle fibers tend to shorten. So as we sit for long stretches of time in front of our computers (or even worse, in our cars on long, tedious drives), the length of those muscles decrease and they tighten when they should be long and loose. Not only that, but our calorie-burning rate is reduced by a third, compared when we're mobile.
If this Sitting Syndrome is repeated every day for hours and hours, the shortened muscles tend to atrophy from disuse. Without a doubt, running or even walking helps (especially at lunchtime to break up the Sitting Syndrome), but chronically shortened muscles place extra demand on other muscles in the same general area to shore up the weakened ones. This tends to crop up after a run when inflammation, muscular imbalances and all sorts of other rotten things can crop up that—if left untreated—can sideline you and me.
Even worse, sitting can—believe it or not--have fatal consequences. A long-term study showed that men who sit for six hours or more a day had an overall death rate 20 percent higher than men who sit three hours a day or less. Women who sit for six hours a day or longer have a 40 percent higher death rate. The researchers concluded that on average, people who sit too much reduce their life expectancy by a few years.
Said Dr. James Levine, a researcher who studies inactivity at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota: “Whether your are morbidly obese or a marathoner, excessive sitting is a lethal activity.”
Yikes! What to do? Get up every 45 minutes or so and move around. Never drive for longer than an hour without getting out and walking around. Stretch. Go to the bathroom even if you don't have to. Climb a flight of stairs just for the heck of it. Get a drink of water. Instead of e-mailing or texting a colleague in the same office, mosey over and actually have a face-to-face conversation, while standing up.
After being waylaid by the Sitting Syndrome, I began setting an alarm on my iPhone to remind me to get up and walk around every hour. While on my hourly walkabout, I stretch my shoulder muscles, troublesome glutes and even my hamstrings that plague the sedentary me. At lunch, I go outside and walk around the block.
One running friend of mine, who was continually incapacitated by the Sitting Syndrome, now stands at his computer all day and takes sitting breaks. He's even thinking about one of those new treadmill desks so he can walk all day while working.
I can't do that and you probably can't either. Instead, force yourself every hour to get away from your work station or out of the car and move around for even a minute. It'll help.
You'll be glad you did. Trust me. (Hundreds have.)