By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
As a professional racer, I struggled mightily to comply with constant pleas from team managers, my coach and a variety of ubiquitous-yet-unsolicited advice-givers who all desperately wanted me to sit down and put my feet up as soon as I got off the bike.
That was not my strong suit.
So, when I moved to Wyoming this summer for my very first full-time, in-office, desk job, I figured I might finally be able to follow their wishes, even if I was a few years too late. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out that going for an early run, putting on a presentable pair of shoes, and then dashing to the office to sit in the same wheely chair for eight or nine hours was not exactly what they had been recommending.
My calves and hamstrings tightened up fast. That made my arches sore, causing me to hobble pitifully every time I did get up from my chair. When I did make time for stretching in the evening, I found my hip flexors tighter than they had been when I was riding a bike four hours a day.
I decided I needed to experiment and find some tricks that helped me maintain my mobility while also keeping my job. I figured out some hacks on my own, but also enlisted a few of my favorite coaches and physios to weigh in on the matter.
Our collected wisdom follows. If you, like me, aren’t quite ready to take one piece of advice that CTS Coach Jason Koop jokingly offered – “Don’t get a desk job…” – I hope you, too, will find these tips helpful for success in the workplace and out on the road or trails.
Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight
Koop also (more helpfully) recommended shifting positions throughout the day.
“I actually really like my stand/sit desk because I can move around a lot,” he said. “I use it way more on recovery days than days I run a lot. Also, I think it’s good when you are stuck in a rut at whatever desk task you are on, to get up and move and then come back to that task.”
I don’t have the option of a sit/stand desk at my current workplace without making major personal investments, but I did buy a laptop stand that can be extended, retracted and folded up to fit in my bike basket. I now tote my laptop to work with me so that I am not tied to the on-desk monitor. Although I worried about the social acceptability of this slightly eccentric move, in the end, set-up actually inspired a bit of coworker jealousy.
Martina Vidali, one of my favorite physios back in Boulder, told me that she starts by asking patients to describe their sitting posture during the day.
“A common picture includes bent hips, poor lower body alignment, slumped shoulders and a forward head,” Martina said. “Eight hours is a long time to let gravity mold our bodies into hunchbacks.”
To counteract those forces, Martina’s advice is to reverse the position.
“The best remedy would be lying flat on the ground with face up and arms over the head,” she described. “Your chin should be about one fist away from the chest. If your hands don’t reach the ground or your low back arches, try using pillows for support. Spend at least five minutes in that position.”
Break it up
Since our freezing mornings together at the pool, my high school swim coach, Grant Holicky, has added other endurance sports to his coaching repertoire at Forever Endurance. Grant recommended trying to break up the workday into chunks and take short breaks to move as needed.
“Research shows that our brain operates better and more efficiently with short chunks of work and short breaks,” he told me. “So take them.”
I had already discovered that one of the perks of very-small town life is being able to get to the pool for a half-hour swim, shower, and be back at my desk in my hour lunch break – a move I was sure Grant would approve of on many levels.
Micro-breaks are also a great option. I discovered if I sneak upstairs into “The Morgue,” where we store bound editions of the paper dating back more than a hundred years, I can sneak in a few stretches without making too much of a scene.
“Yoga sequences such as downward dog to cobra or child pose to cobra would be a good option to relieve stress from lumbar spine and give the hamstrings some fresh blood,” was Martina’s recommendation. “Try to open the hips, mobilize the thoracic spine and wake up your core.”
Plan for success
I found the challenges of an office job extend outside of the workday. It’s very easy for me to get home and immediately glue myself to the living room couch.
“In some ways, the trouble with staying active with the desk job is more about the accessibility to more work than the lack of exercise,” Grant told me. “As soon as we finish one task, others are right there waiting for us.”
Grant suggested planning ahead to prioritize workouts.
“Bring the workout clothes, have a plan for the shower, and stop working at the planned time. The work will always be there and the workout will leave you energized, more efficient, and a heck of a lot happier.”
I discovered one foolproof motivator was to drop off my workout gear in the YMCA locker room before I head to the office. It’s not locked up, so if I don’t go back to retrieve it before the end of the day, it’s headed straight to the lost and found.
Not all boots are made for walkin’
When I started my job, I owned running shoes, flip flops, and several pairs of formalwear shoes that had been purchased for less than $20 apiece. None of these really fit the bill for both workplace propriety and long-term foot health.
I initiated a search to find shoes that were both socially acceptable and designed with support in mind. It’s just one option, but I found success by doing style research here, and then stretching my dollars by purchasing from online consignment shops. Even if you do pay full price, you can console yourself with the knowledge that a pair of shoes costs less than a pair of physical therapy appointments.