The Sitting Athlete

By Sean Fyfe

Printed in Peak Performance: Core Stability Report Special 2013


We were not designed to sit

around all day. So when we

do, here’s what happens

Sitting for long periods during the day can adversely affect your performance in your chosen sport and is quite often a predisposing factor in injury. Most of us are not professional athletes and spend large chunks of our day sitting hunched over a computer, in a vehicle or slumped on the sofa.

In most people, prolonged sitting will cause all or some of the following:

_ tight hip flexor, hamstring and calf muscles

_ tightness through the external hip rotator muscles, which can lead to restricted movement at the hip joint

_ reduced extension through the lower back, causing stiffness

_ stiffness in the mid (thoracic) spine

_ tight and hunched shoulders with weak lower shoulder muscles

_ tight and weak muscles at the back of the shoulder

_ ‘poked chin’ posture and muscle imbalances in the neck and upper shoulders

The better the posture one can maintain during the day, the less likely it is that the above areas will become problematic. Conversely, the older the athlete and the more time spent sitting down over the years, the more ingrained these problems will be.

Let’s consider Jack, a 30-year old deliveryman who is trying to break a three-hour marathon time. His training is being increasingly affected by the low back and rear thigh discomfort he feels whenever he tries to run more than 15km. Jack sits most of the day in quite poor posture, slouched over with his knees out to the side. All of which has produced some muscle imbalances, weaknesses and restrictions on his range of hip movement over the years.

Jack’s daily training routine and flexibility programme need to be adjusted to combat the hours he spends sitting in the truck.


Workplace rules for the sitting athlete and person

_ Do not hold the phone receiver between shoulder and ear – use

a headset

_ Keep the computer mouse close enough that the elbow remains close

in to the body

_ Distribute all frequently used desk items evenly between left and right

hand’s reach

_ Keep feet comfortably flat on the floor

_ Ensure the chair has a relatively high and straight back-rest

Now we meet Denise, a 40-year-old lawyer and triathlete who spends hours on end, day and night, in front of a computer, and then more hours sitting on a bike –mostly in the hunched ‘aero’ position. Denise has an increased curvature of the mid-spine and a ‘poked chin’. She also has several muscular imbalances and weaknesses, and flexibility limitations in her shoulders and mid-spine.

These will undermine Denise’s efficiency in her swimming stroke, and worse still make her a classic candidate for a shoulder impingement/tendinitis injury – the last thing she would want leading up to a qualifying race.

Just like Jack, Denise needs to undertake daily flexibilityexercises and regular standing to combat the effects of spending so much time in a seated position. She’ll also need an exercise program to train postural and shoulder stability muscle groups.

Prolonged sitting has also been linked to acute muscle strains in dynamic sports, in particular hamstring strains. The lower back stiffness associated with sitting leads to altered nerve input into the rear thigh, the theory goes. This can manifest as increased muscle tone of the hamstrings, which will increase the risk of strain.

Sit up and pay attention.

The solution starts with education.

You must first learn how to put your body into good posture during the day; how to hold your spine in a correct position. Many people try to sit up tall by just leaning back from the base of the spine without altering their mid-spine or shoulder position. What you should be doing is finding a neutral lower back position and correcting your mid to upper-back position, so you can effectively pull your shoulder blades down your back using the lower shoulder muscles, combatting the tendency to hunch forwards.

However, it is very difficult to hold good posture if your workstation is poorly set up; for example with the keyboard too high or sat at an old chair with a sloping back-rest. A workplace assessment should help by modifying the height and placement of office equipment or introducing corrective devices to help with good sitting.

Jack may need a lumbar roll to get his low-back out of flexion and a block next to the vehicle’s door to prevent his knee and hip from falling outwards to the side all the time. Denise may need to raise the height of her monitor to eye level, lower the keyboard height so that her hands are at elbow level, and use a postural brace for her shoulder girdle and upper back while she is relearning to sit correctly. Seating wedges are very useful where chairs are too low (which forces you to sit with your knees

higher than your hips and puts your lower back into flexion). The wedge is also very handy to correct bucket seats in cars.


Exercises to help you stay flexible

_ Lie on your back over a rolled towel or high-density foam-roller (placed perpendicular to spine) to stretch the mid-spine joints into extension

_ Lie face down and push up into extension through the lower back

_ Twist and stretch through the mid-spine

_ Stand six inches away from a wall, knees slightly bent and back and shoulder blades flattened against the wall, then pull back the chin into the wall to reverse poor neck and upper-spine curvature

_ Stretch your hip flexors, calves and hamstrings

Sean Fyfe

Taken from Peak Performance Core Stability Report 2013