Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Sitting. It’s a detrimental habit that our society absolutely loves to do, but most likely something that runners rarely consider the dangers of. After all, we routinely get our 10,000 steps (or more) in a day. It’s easy to make the assumption that if you run a lot, you must be healthy. Further, it makes sense why you’d never assume sitting may impact your running. I mean, a ten mile run in the morning has got to negate any negatives your body encounters throughout the rest of the day, right?
Unfortunately, maybe not.
Turns out, frequent sitting may impact your running in more ways than you might expect. Further, just because you may train upwards of a few hours a day, doesn’t necessarily leave you safe from the detriments of sitting for long periods of time. I won’t lie, even researching / writing this article while sitting stressed me out a bit. So let’s dive in:
How Frequent Bouts of Sitting May Negatively Impact Your Running:
Sitting may increase your risk of death. Yes, even you.
It’s no secret that our society as a whole is woefully inactive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than a quarter of adults in the United States are getting the minimum amount of recommended physical activity (source). Chances are, if you are reading this article, you are already a runner. So you might assume you are exempt from that scary statistic, right? Maybe…unless you sit for extended periods of time.
That’s right, even an ultramarathoner with a desk bound job is not immune to the risks that come with sitting for extended periods of time. Sitting is an independent risk factor: too much of it cannot be canceled out by exercise. Similar to the idea that exercise will not negate the effects of smoking cigarettes. And too much sitting can increase your risk of chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes , stroke, some cancers, dimentia, anxiety, and more. Studies show that as sedentary time increases, so does the risk of early death (source).
Hips, Hamstrings, & Glutes (oh my!)
Here’s a thing that I think a lot of runners tend to forget: your entire body works together as one really kickass, incredible machine. Almost every working part is directly effected by another working part. So if one of those working parts becomes tight, weakened, or broken, it’s going to affect the rest of your body. Sometimes running injuries are a result of a direct event (your foot got caught on a root and you twisted your ankle) but more often, running injuries are a result of a weakness elsewhere in the body (painful knees, for example).
But let’s get back to sitting.
When seated in a chair, your body is typically bent at a 90 degree angle at the hips, and again at the knees. In this position your hip flexors are shortened while seated, as are your hamstrings. Please note, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your hip flexors and hamstrings will actually “shorten”, as soon as you stand up those ligaments and tendons will return to their natural state. However, this does mean that they can feel tight from chronic sitting.
And what happens to runners with tight hips and tight hamstrings?
Possibly nothing. OR, possibly a whole slew of kinetic chain breakdowns from weakened glute muscles and the lack of full hip and hamstring extension. Again, this is not because the hips and hamstrings have actually shortened, it’s because they are tight and uncomfortable, and therefore runners tend to compensate by avoiding full extension. This breakdown can result in anything from poor and inefficient running form to actual injuries to the knees, hamstrings, hips, and more.
How’s your posture when you’re sitting in a chair? If it’s anything like mine: it needs help from time to time. I slouch when I’m not paying attention to my posture, and I’m 100% guilty of what my husband calls “tech neck“, you know, shoulders rounded, head down, mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. That forward head position can create weakness and tightness in your cervical spine (neck), scapula (shoulders) and thoracic spine (mid- to low-back).
This tightness and weakness affects the thoracic spine’s ability to rotate and extend fully. Without that full range of motion in the midsection, we cannot maximally engage our core, allowing us to engage our spinal stabilizers, pelvic floor, and hip muscles. And what does that result in?
Poor running form, which again, may lead to injuries. Do you see where we are going with this? Too much sitting may result in limited mobility in the hips, hamstrings, core, and low back, which can equal a recipe for disaster for runners.
How to combat the effects of sitting.
You may be reading this (sitting, ironically) thinking “but I have to sit for work, what am I supposed to do”? Well before you go and quit your job or throw your chair out the window, know this: studies ALSO show that those who sit in bouts of 30 minutes or less (i.e., they get up and move every 30 minutes) have a 55% lower risk of early death than those who sit for 30 minutes or more.
At this point I could talk to you about very expensive treadmill desks that probably most of us a) can’t afford, or b) can’t convince our bosses to splurge on. I could also talk to you about standing desks, which may end up doing more harm than good (source). A 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that workers who primarily stood on the job had double the risk of heart disease over about a 12-year period than people who mostly sat.
Is your head spinning yet? Experts tend to agree on the solution to this confusion: get up and move.
Set a timer, and every 30 minutes, get out of your chair. Visit the restroom, head to the copy machine, stand up and march in place. Do some discreet – or not so discreet, depending on where you work – exercises if you can. And if your boss complains, let them know that research shows physical activity actually increases employee productivity.
In short: you don’t need to be militant about not sitting, rather, be more cognizant of how much you sit, and try to create more active habits. Remember that running alone does not negate multiple hours of inactivity. Move like your life depends on it. Because it just might.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.