When a Running Injury Is Not a Running Injury At All

Chick's CornerSo you reckon you run a lot? Me too! At this time of year I’m lacing up my shoes about six days out of seven. As soon as I wake up in the morning my thoughts are not of work, but what run I’ll log after work, and lunchtimes are spent planning weekend running routes and rendezvous with friends – where will we meet, how many miles will we log, and how long will it take. And at the end of each week, I’ll sneak a look at my Garmin stats – how many hours and miles logged – at this time of year it’s maybe about 100 miles a week, and heck – that sure cuts back on doing other social activities, so I figure I run a lot so therefore any aches and pains and niggles are caused by running. Or are they?

With a few more niggles than normal (I don’t like the word injury; that implies I should maybe cut back on my running), I headed off to the physio. I anticipated maybe a critique of my running form, some analysis of imperfect biomechanics, or advice to cut back on the miles if I also wanted to be logging quality speed sessions. Basically, I expected to hear that my high volume of running was making me injured (or ‘niggled’). Instead, my physio made a rather depressing statement that I’d never considered before, “So, you spend more than 40 hours a week sitting at your work desk, that’s probably the real reason for all these hamstring issues.”

Huh, rather obvious really, but I guess I wanted to think I was a runner so my thoughts had focused on the time I spend doing that, and then work – well, that’s just work isn’t it? I guess not; 40 hours at a desk versus 15 hours running, yeah – it could make sense that all this desk work could be wreaking havoc on my body. Sure, if all I wanted to do after work was sit on the couch or maybe do a little light gardening, I’d probably be fine but no – I want to log my runs after work and that is when the pain is flaring up – running aggravates imbalances and injuries that are caused by sitting at a desk, but that’s not to say the running causes them – it just brings them to the forefront.

Of course, in a way, this is what I wanted to hear – yay, no need to cut back on running! Can I cut back on the paperwork pounding? Hmm, well, that would be nice, but not really too realistic if I want my monthly paycheck. So, I guess it’s about how to manage the way in which other aspects of my life, which might not be the best compliment to my running, can be modified or changed so they don’t negatively impact my running. I can tell you one thing, I felt pretty darn stupid walking out of a physio session with one of my main tasks not being daily exercises, but, instead, instructions on how to set up my work station properly and how often to take breaks from the office-desk-slump-posture. This all seemed so obvious yet I know I’m not the only one who has been working day-in day-out in some crumpled-up-slouched-over-the-keyboard position.

The next lifestyle analysis and adjustment was the gym. In a similar vein to my desk job, I’d not considered how the gym could possibly be detrimental to a runner. It’s not as if I’m bench-pressing huge lumps of iron, I’m more the mid-size many-rep bicep curl kinda girl. Oh, and whilst I was at the gym I figured I’d throw in a few other things – chest press, shoulder shrugs, etc. – can’t do any harm, can it? Well, no not really – not unless I already had super tight shoulders (which have now been surgically removed from being attached to my ears) and sit at a desk all day and then want to run, too. Hmm, cut out a few of the gym exercises, carrying the groceries home from the store probably builds those muscles enough for a runner, as tense shoulders were resulting in me running with my shoulders fixed rigid. Of course, the magic of the human body means that tense shoulders can cause hamstring issues, which is pretty clever if you ask me!

All I can say is thank goodness I don’t drive a car, I think that I sit stock still at a desk for a bulk of the day, but sitting in a vehicle is even worse for lack of movement. And no doubt there are many physical jobs or ones requiring you to stand on your feet all day that can have a real negative impact on a runner. Overall, it’s been an interesting and eye-opening experience to have a look at how other aspects of my life impact physically on my running, and I am sure this is the same for many of you reading this article. If you think about it – we have 24 hours every day, let’s say eight of those are spent sleeping, that still leaves 16 hours and it’s my bet that no one reading this spends anything like half of those 16 hours running every day. Which means more time is spent doing non-running activities (be they other sports, hobbies or a paid job). While those activities might not seem overly physical (I always joke that my desk job lets me rest for eight hours every day), they can still impact our physical form, which then carries through to running, and all too often running injuries.

There are 61 comments

  1. Lukas

    Hi,

    thanks for the article – it's really something that's been bothering me for quite some time now. I'm a computer scientist, so I spent the better part of my waking time in a sitting position. Standing makes my back feel a lot less stiff, though it occasionally tightens up the lower legs … Could you share some of the tips you got regarding the setup of your work station?

    Thanks and have a nice day!

    Lukas

    1. Ellie

      Hi Lukas,

      My pointers are fairly basic but you want to be sitting with your feet flat on the floor and your back fully supported by the back of the chair. You will also want to have light support from arm rests and your keyboard close enough to you that you are now hunching forward at all to reach it. Your monitor should be at eye level (so you are not looking down or up to see it). In addition take regular breaks, even if just every 30 mins you stand up for a few seconds and sit back down again as this gives you the chance to sit back down again in a 'good' position if you had been creeping out of it.

      1. Matt Smith

        Sit-stand workstations are a good option if your company can afford them. Being able to work while standing up is a great option when trapped at a desk all day.

        I mix standing with sitting on a 60cm exercise ball.

        It may be anecdotal, but I now have a stronger core and less problems with tight back/legs than when I used to sit all day.

        Ergonomics are starting to creep into modern workplaces – many EHS departments will not only help you select the right workstation, but also do a custom measurement and setup.

        Matt

    1. Em

      I developed a Morton's neuroma in my left foot this past winter while gearing up for a 100 miler. I took my running shoes and training schedule to the podiatrist, but it turns out the culprits were the narrow ballet flats and Converse sneakers I was squeezing my foot into for the majority of each day. I often work 10+ hour days in my laboratory job, almost all of which I spend on my feet.

      That being said, I do think all that standing must be somewhat good for my endurance, and when I was studying (sitting) full time it irritated my piriformis, so I suppose it's a trade off!

  2. Neal Gorman

    Bucket-style car seats and poorly designed (over cushioned, supposedly made-for-comfort) office chairs are huge niggle-causing offenders. All the PT/Strength work in the world won't rid an injury when you keep going back to eight hours/day in a chair that might have helped cause the problem in the first place. Speaking from past hamstring-syndrome issue experience, when I switched to a solid wood office chair (which still reclines- at the base, not the lower back-, swivels and rolls) the issues went away completely. Good luck with sorting this out.

  3. Jason C

    Glad you brought this up, Ellie. I have this conversation countless times in my clinic each week. Kelly Starrett did a Google Health talk about predictable pain patterns from poor sitting. Really worth the time to watch.

    http://youtu.be/kfg_e6YG37U

  4. art

    I've been told that even sleeping can be bad for running if you sleep in the wrong position. Supposedly sleeping on your stomach is worse than no sleep at all.

  5. Kai

    I also would like to hear more about what to do about having to deal with the hours of office work. I just started paying attention to this some time ago after struggling with lower back problems in running and actually made the connection with my working setup only last week. I work from home and actually use one of these Stressless recliners, which initially seemed like a good idea, but now I feel like it's destroyed my posture and probably is not the best position to work in.

    I started looking into these saddle chairs that seem pretty good, but haven't made any decisions about how to fix the situation.

    Actually, I'm starting to think that especially trail running actually helps fix some of the problems caused by bad work desk ergonomics.

  6. Charlie M.

    Early humans = persistence hunting, Good for hamstrings, but died at age 25.

    Modern humans = persistence typing, Bad for hamstrings, but die at age 85.

    Hmmm, I will take the tight hamstrings. :)

  7. Jeremy

    Maybe we are looking at this wrong. Perhaps we should start running in a squatted position. That shouldn't stress our bodies too differently than our computer job!

  8. astroyam

    Great article Ellie, helpful for a lot of us!

    Do you think that running in the morning before work might remove some of the problem since your body hasn't had time to tighten up in the seated position?

    1. Ellie

      For me, probably not as I am quite tight in the mornings too (maybe due to sleeping position) but could work for others, and maybe worth some people trying to see if different times of day for running are easier on their bodies than others. But I also don't think my hamstrings would be happy to run and then sit most of the day.

  9. Kit Palmer

    After rupturing a disk in my lower back last July, I made the tradition to a stand up desk. I still spend about 3-4 hours at my desk each day, but my posture and shoulder/neck stiffness is greatly reduced. I also have an ergo chair that promotes good sitting posture for the days when my legs are trashed from long runs.

  10. Tim

    I asked work for a stand up desk I was told I don't have a medical problem. Guess you can throw out being proactive in corporate america.

    1. Kelly

      You can make an addition to your desk for as low as $30 which will convert it to a standup desk. It's basic design is a small side table like this one (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005QLJL26/ref=oh_details_o09_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) and you use a shelf kit to install a "keyboard shelf" at whatever height is good for you. So monitor sits on top of table, keyboard on shelf and table on top of desk. If you google stand up desk you will probably see the article where I got this design.

      1. Tim

        I went down that avenue and they saind not allowed, we can only have authorized work property at our desks and can not do any remodeling ourselves.

  11. Ann

    I have had similar issues. I was in the middle of a big knitting project and had a knee issue. I had just finished a marathon and a 50 miler so I figured it was from that but no. The doctor said it was the way I was sitting while knitting. Crazy, right?

    1. Ellie

      Love it! well no, sorry for your knitting injury but can totally see how knitting would be tough on shoulders and could then feed down to lower body.

  12. Andy

    Amazing timing. My worst "niggles" have always come from too much time in the car, including this weekend when I sat in the car for 7 hrs and another 7 or more of sitting around (and only a one-hour run on Sat AM). The result? I sustained a serious niggle to my right hip while still in bed early this morning! I hurt more today after this brutal weekend than I did last month a couple days after my first 100. Bucket seats and desk chairs are the enemy, for sure. Lesson: Run more, sit less.

  13. patrick t.

    I've had hamstring pain for over a year that I just deal with, honestly. It comes and goes, but I've found a HUGE help from two things:

    -doing hamstring strengthening exercises (squats and laying-on-the-floor, one-legged bridge ups)

    http://runnersconnect-net.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com

    like these, but with one leg pulled up towards my chest.

    -when I'm sitting at my desk, I dangle my "bad" leg off the side of the chair, like I'm in a lunge position. This keeps my quad and hip stretched and in line with my body as though I were standing up.

    Hope this helps some people.

    1. Rodders

      Hi, great article, and very timely. Weird thing is that I just sent my Brother a note (he is laid up with a bad back) to say don't just look at your 10 hrs per week cycling and running for the cause and or the solution to your back issue (new shoes, bike position etc)look at the other 158 hours per week, sleeping, watching TV sat at a desk.

  14. Aaron

    Ah, I can't wait to quit my desk job and do something a little more active for a living. If land prices weren't so insane I might've done it already. To compensate for all the sitting I was cycling to and from work and running for an hour midday. However, it's getting too warm for that lunch run, because I have no access to a cold shower in which to quickly cool off and stop sweating.

  15. Amy

    I've been using a standing desk at work for about 6 months. I both love it and hate it. Overall, it's good, but on days when I'm tired, I really want to slouch in a comfy chair, but can't. I can sit, and do sit about half-time, as I have a tall backless stool. The stool is far from comfortable, and lacking a back, forces me to maintain decent posture.

    I've found the root of my hamstring issues (and occasional knee niggles is yoga). But without yoga, I've got other issues. I'm trying to approach yoga in a less aggressive light.

    1. Myles

      I've been standing at my desk for about the same length of time – at my day job. I also use an anti-fatigue mat under my feet, it really helps. Next to my stand-up desk is my normal height break-desk, where I'm sitting right now, for about one-hour a day – in a comfy chair. By standing more at work, I've noticed I can run less and recover more, but still maintain a great amount of time on feet.

      Recovery quickly Ellie!

  16. Evan

    I've been battling this issue for a couple months now! Too much sitting, followed immediately by running, has given me back problems that have prevented me from running for several weeks already. It makes me hate sitting here, even as I type this! and getting into my car feels ominous. grrr.

    1. Ellie

      Short breaks (even standing up for 10 seconds every 30mins or so to adjust your position) and a good desk/ chair/ computer set up are key.

  17. ken michal

    I have to agree with Matt above! As a waiter, I LOVE my standing job for running! It's kind of tough to work the day after races but keeping those legs in motion really helps with recovery!!! (I'm sure I'll live to regret these words when I head to Van next week!!! Up for some slogging?!?) The tough part is not having a consistent schedule and sleep pattern…

    All Day!

    ~Ken

    1. Ellie

      We'll let you relax a little in Van Ken! But do agree that benefit of my day job is regular hours and routine which works great for my run training.

  18. Nick

    Small details have big impact. Few tricks I learned when I got injured after first year of my first desk job (Achilles issues):

    – as Ellie said, your feet should be flat on the ground, but also your legs should be close to the base of the chair so that your shins are at 90 degree angle to the floor (or even at a sharper angle, point is to keep your tendons stretched). This made a huge difference for me.

    – from time to time lift an ankle of one leg against the knee (of other leg, of course :) ). This helps to reduce the swelling in your lower legs you might get from sitting to long. I call it primitive elevation. Be advised this is easier and more socially acceptable gesture for boys than girls.

    – use the stairs – I work on 8th floor and go to lunch on 2nd. I also commute between the floors from time to time. Its a good way to get the blood flowing from time to time. I also do something like 30 squats before leaving the toilet (enough to get the buzz in my legs and not get me sweating).

    Be it strange as it is, it works form me and slowly I am recovering (and racing ultras). Also, it makes my day-to-day work routine more bearable since I know this helps me to go out running afterwards. I wonder what my colleagues would think if they knew about this. But then again, they already see me as a fringe lunatic for considering ultra-running as a fun activity :)

    I was just recently thinking about the fact that during a normal week most runners spend something like 20 to 30 hours moving on foot, out of which 10 to 15 is running (and for ultra runners average in race time). Would be an interesting topic to consider for further discussions.

    Ellie, if you have any other advice, please share it.

    Get well soon,

    Cheers from Serbia ;)

  19. Tropical John

    Well, now. This confirms what I've been saying for the past few years: on balance, work is vastly over-rated.

  20. Zanne

    I work in a grocery store so am on my feet all day. I race both Ironman and ultras. When I was building for my first ultra I was surprised that on 2 a days when I worked, my legs recovered between sessions far more than if I ran in the morning, layed around all day then ran again. When I started doing all my run sessions for IM before work my legs definitly feel fresher for a long bike session after work.

  21. George Harris

    Wow what a great article. I have had issues after running at lunch and sitting at my computer for a while and then getting up to do something. I am really stiff in my right leg. This advice is something I will act on. Great to have something like this posted here.

  22. KenZ

    I've done a variety of things at work, and switch between them.

    1. Built a standing desk. Works great. Only for me, with Achilles issues, I can't use it that much because the Achilles get no rest. But it's one of the things I cycle through. Also, don't just stand there on two feet, make sure you have something shoebox sized or higher to rest one foot on, then the other. Takes stress off the back a bit. And practice good standing posture! Crap standing posture is doing you no favors.

    2. Built a "cross legged" chair. Basically, a standard 5 wheel office chair, but I removed the entire chair part, then put on a larger 2'x2' square padded flat seat with a butt bolster that I can add or remove. Now I can sit tall, or as someone noted above sit in a supported lunge position kneeling on one let, supporting a bit of my rear with the side of the chair contraption, or I can literally sit cross legged which doesn't do as much 'damage' to your hammies, hip flexors, and keeps the hips open a bit more. None of them should be done all day, but switching between them helps break up the monotony.

    3. knee pad. A tall firm foam pad that lets your feet dangle off the back a bit (to keep the achilles from getting scruched). While this still does the hammies almost no favors, it does wonders for the hip flexors/psoas.

    If work ever tells me I can't use these things at the office, they can look for a new employee.

  23. Ben Nephew

    As your physio said, it's probably the sitting at desk, but he doesn't really know what the cause of your hamstring problems are. For anyone with evidence of a strain or tear, it seems hard to believe that sitting would be the initial cause, rather than something done during training or racing. In general, it is tough to find data driven practices in sports medicine. For many injuries, there are very few controlled studies comparing various treatments. Many runners choose doctors entirely on word of mouth. Sure, sitting all day exacerbates many injuries, but just changing your seating position may not be the cure.

    I think the gym comment is also relevant to the sports medicine discussion. It seems like every injury is hypothesized to be caused by some sort of muscle imbalance, leading to some sort of strengthening routine. Sometimes, especially with ultrarunners, maybe it more due to overuse? I used to do a lot of core work, because everyone knows runners have weak cores. Well, I ended up with a lower ab strain that took quite a while to heal, and haven't had any issues since I stopped doing core work. What I realized was that I do enough speedwork and miles on singletrack that provides enough of a stimulus. The core work I was doing was overuse, and I've heard similar stories from several other runners.

    1. Tim

      Great points Ben. I do a very low key core routine about 2 x per week that hits the the muscles that are overlooked in running the side to side muscles and some upper body stuff. I would agree with you that overuse is most likely more of the problems that many of us face. The article had interesting timing considering Ellie was just diagnosed with a stress fracture I believe in her Fibula?

      Ellie any thoughts on that injury and the cause? I would think that is a result of overuse?

      I would also like to know if those that do a daily stretching or weekly yoga class are still volunterable to the issues discussed because of "sitting".

      1. Ben Nephew

        I actually have some recent overuse experience with hamstring issues. My usualy annual schedule involves a few months of snowshoe running in winter. Two winters ago, instead of winter we got an extended fall that was perfect for fast trail running, plenty of tempo runs, hard long runs on the road, and speed workouts. I got into great shape for a road 50k, but it was all too much for my hamstrings, which became incredibly tight and sore after workouts. No one wants to take time off, but you can take time off and still run with some injuries. In this case, I just did nothing but hill workouts, hiking, and slower trail running for about a month, and in combination with icing and stretching, my hamstrings recovered and I ended up in better shape after the hills. Basically, I created a snowshoe season for myself, a bit too late.

  24. Charlie

    I get a regular massage (fortnightly) and it used to be back and legs but it is nearly always back and shoulders these days. So when people ask if I am getting a massage to recover from my training I always set them straight and tell them it is to recover from my sitting at a desk all day.

  25. owen

    It's amazing how damaging sitting can be for you! I swapped my seated option for a stading desk (which consisted of placing a box on my desk to raise my computer and ditching the chair, no expensive purchase necessary) and have been chair free for over a year now and it has had a really positive impact on my general health and posture.

    When you say cutting back on the exercises in the gym its interesting to see what you were doing. Have you looked at a more functional approach to your non running exercise? I'm sure deadlifts and squats would reap you far more benefits than bicep curls?

  26. Chris

    I struggled with tight hamstrings and a seized up old SI joint for years. I bought a new mattress and got a stand up station at work and within a month I was niggle-free.

    1. Chris

      Oh, I do most of my mileage on my lunch break and I found coming back from a run and sitting all afternoon was the worst. By 3:00 I felt like my hamstrings and hips were completely seized up.

  27. adam

    Well? I wonder if that means hard working tradesfolk would be the perfect ultra runners? Bricklayers, pipe fitters, and carpenters with all that healthy movement… naaa. too much muscle.

  28. Dan C

    The biggest problem with sitting long periods of time are the Psoas muscles contracting and not getting stretched out anytime. Once the psoas stay tight, they affect the hamstrings as well as the other areas such as piriformis and sciatic nerves. If the psoas gets overworked and goes into spasms, you will really have some serious problems. There is an easy stretch for the psoas here
    http://www.julstro.com/what_happens_exactly/

    AS for hard working tradesfolk, it is very easy to overwork muscles. The shoulders and back are the most vulnerable and once those are tight, the legs will follow.

    Last summer I ran 20+ trail races averaging 5 hour drives each way. Halfway to one race, my sciatic nerve got irritated and I was barely able to run. Had to sit on a large pillow after that for relief on the long drives.

    1. adam

      Good points Dan.

      AS for the trades…I'm the only plumber (former) who I've ever met who runs ultras. Yes, overworked in deed! They don't call it backbreaking for nothin'!

  29. Luke Garten

    I agree with the overdoing core workouts. I do go to the gym about once a week and work on all mustle groups just for the benifit of being stronger everywhere. I have never finished an ultra and said I wish I did more core work. My abs have never been sore doing anything except core work at the gym. I always finish an ultra and wish I spent more time with speed work. :)

  30. Melissa

    After climbing the corporate research ladder, I found myself in a cubicle all day and was miserable and went back to school to get my second degree in nursing. Not only am I on my feet for 13 hours straight (we don't even have chairs on my unit), I log about 8 miles just walking the hall daily and imagine the strength I'm building by lifting and turning 300 pound patients!

  31. Stephen

    Am I the only one thinking about another important question here? Which is, why is an athlete the calibre of Ellie (who's achievements are just phenomenal) having to work as a desk jockey 40 hours a week in first place?? Ellie, I was shocked that you are not a full time sponsored athlete now, like some of the other elites. Sounds to me like your sponsors need to lift their game or you need some new ones!!! You shouldn't need to be holding down a 40 hour per week job just to survive (unless you want to of course, irrespective of any sponsorship deals, which is a different matter).

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    Keep up the great writing and running Ellie. You are an inspiration to many.

  32. Ellie

    Hi Stephen, It is my choice to work a day job. I have great sponsor commitment but being an athlete is a precarious game, I am 34 so got to be realistic that being among one of the top ladies may not last for long. I could live of prize winnings and sponsorship if I have a good year but all it would take is one injury and my income would drop to a level that is not really sustainable, plus I have to think long term and that is where a job that does not rely on me running well provides financial security. It does mean I can travel less to races than if I had no day job but it's a balance I have chosen for now.

  33. Anonymous

    Makes perfect sense Ellie. As long as you're happy with the balance that's all that matters! I just hate to see supremely talented athletes struggling to survive where they don't feel they have any options. Cheers, S

  34. Ana

    I wish I could have one of these! I know my nonprofit employer wouldn't go for it, and it wouldn't fit or work in my current cubicle anyway…

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