desk job

Expert Advice for Surviving a Desk Job as an Athlete

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.

Reverse it

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.”

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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.


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Comments 7

  1. Any advice for those of us who lug around a half a ton of mail while walking 8-10 miles a day? (Which means never having fresh legs, no matter how little we ride? And feet that are always hurting, full of sores, blisters, etc.?)

  2. Heyo! We say “Sit – Stand – Perch”. I’m a #ctsathlete, and live and breathe this. In my day job (in the office :), we sell sit-to-stand desks, desktop adjustable height units and these nifty little units.

    “Perching” is fantastic, and is an often overlooked way to get time on your feet with good posture. We sell them for around $140 with customizable seat colors.

  3. I highly recommend Lems shoes for athletes. They are flat, foldable, very thin and do not have much support — on purpose. They also have a wide toe-box so they don’t constrict the blood supply to your feet. As a competitive cyclist, I have found them much more comfortable than traditional shoes. Because they are flexible your feet are constantly conforming to whatever you are standing or walking on and being strengthened, which feels good and reduces fatigue in my experience. I was concerned they would hurt since I have very flat feet, but they have been amazingly comfortable and my arch has actually started to improve over time. I also use a sit-to-stand desk and a standing mat at work and switch back and forth.

  4. Very pertinent article Mara, as so many sit all day.
    Sneaking in stretches has been helpful for me as well when I’m in public. I’ve also minimizes my emf exposure by using corded devices, keeping bluetooth, wifi & other devices as far away as possible, as well as standing on a grounding pad.

    It’s not cheap, (but a great investment & less than many), but after much research, I went with the desk below. I’ve even found it helps with allowing our digestion & GI tract some relief from sitting as well.
    Standing Desk X-Elite Pro, amazon for $190, free shipping. May be too big at 28″ wide, does raise as much as 17″. I’ve found it study, well made, nice looking, (3 wood / color choices, I have the cherry), fairly easy to raise as it has a air-shock to assist. I believe this company is women owned too.
    Enjoy Big Sky country.

  5. All of this is great advice, I have also loaded an app on my computer that reminds me to take mini breaks and a long break every hour. It seems like no matter what kind of job you have, either a sitting or standing, they all come with some repercussions. I have friends that work on their feet all day and they barely have the energy to do anything at the end of the work day. They have feet issues, back issues, etc. Cycling, running, any type of exercise can go a long way towards a healthier life and help to keep us balanced. Move it or lose it is what my grandmother always said. She made it to 99.

  6. My hamstrings tighten up when I sit for prolonged periods especially if I’ve had a big leg workout in the morning (either riding or working out). I have the option of a stand/sit desk and have it raised more than 50% of the time. Even though I’m on my feet more, my legs feel a whole lot better. I know it has positive effects on my posture too. I had neck surgery a few years ago. The upright positioning when the desk is raised is a big help there too.

  7. I work for a major Automobile Company. I teardown car and truck rearends all day. My job is very physical and I’m constantly on my feet.
    I truly believe my job, along with my healthy lifestyle is responsible for giving me the strength to endure long distances on my road bike.
    I once had an office job. It was aweful sitting most of the day. I would have to get up several times a day from my office chair and walk around; in order to get my blood flowing!

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