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The bane of the white-collar cyclist

first appearing in SPIN ASIA Issue 051

· bike fit

white-collar – adjective

/wʌɪt / ˈkɒlə/

  1. relating to the work done or the people who work in an office or other professional environment.
  2. Refers to employees whose job entails, largely or entirely, mental or clerical work, such as in an office. 

cyclist - noun

/ˈsʌɪklɪst/

  1. a person who rides a bicycle.

The phenomenon of the white-collar cyclist is very real in modern society, especially here in Singapore where we are increasingly working sedentary jobs. So it’s no surprise that when we get on our bikes on the weekends we are much more prone to injuries. After spending upwards of 8 hours a day sitting at our desks, perhaps briefly getting up to get a cup of coffee and to visit the bathroom, then leave our desks for about an hour to have lunch only to be seated again.

It’s tough to break this routine as most jobs require us to sit for long periods of time and it has become so common to sit all day at our jobs that it’s now the norm. So much so it doesn’t even occur to most of us that it could actually be causing lasting damage to our bodies.

The problem is that sitting down feels good! Such as after a long ride or hard interval session, it allows the body to rest and heal itself but after a certain point in time sitting is no longer necessary and doing it for long periods of time can actually hurt your body.

It’s little wonder that the most common complaints from cyclists and office workers alike are from the lower back, shoulder, neck and wrists. After spending up to eight hours a day in front of a computer for many days/months/years, the white collar cyclist gets on the bike for an hour or two and expect to have no problems and wonder why they are not comfortable on the bike when in reality they only spend fraction of the time on the saddle compared to the desk.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way, the human body is designed to be mobile, not sedentary and it’s only recently in the evolutionary process that humans have been in the seated position for such long periods of time. Our bad habits from the office and encumbrances that our bodies have built up over the years are often translated to the bike which is not good.

Let’s start with what is happening to our body when we sit hunched over that desk all day and how this can affect your cycling:

Slowing of your metabolism

The decreased muscle activity that occurs during prolonged sitting slows the clearance of fat from the blood stream and decreases the effect of insulin. In lay man’s terms, it slows your metabolism as your body adapts to not having to expend so much energy sitting and along with a slower metabolism comes increased fat storage and weight gain.

Stiff Shoulders and Neck

It's common to look down and while working at your desk or looking down at your phone. This position forces the head forward and cause the shoulders to curve to compensate for the weight transfer. It strains your cervical spine, which can lead to neck strain, sore shoulders and back. Having stiff shoulders and neck is a very common complaint of many cyclists and can turn a long ride from heaven to hell.

Tight Hips and weak glutes

Sitting causes your hip flexors to shorten and become tight as they are kept in a contracted position while seated. By sitting all day, you not using your leg muscles to hold you up so do not activate the glutes at all, which in time will become weakened and affects your stability and the power on the bike. If this alone doesn’t scare you well maybe you should re-read this part, tight hip flexors and weak glutes are one of the biggest problems for cyclists. The glutes are the one of the strongest muscle groups in the body and very important in cycling. Having weak glutes puts you at a disadvantage before you even start pedaling.

Back and spine injuries

Sitting puts more pressure on your spine than standing and can hurt your back if you have bad posture or don’t use an ergonomic chair. Prolonged sitting causes the pelvis to rotate backward, puts pressure on the lower back and compresses the discs in your spine which can leads to degeneration and chronic pain. The discs in your back are meant to expand and contract as you move, which allows them to absorb blood and nutrients. When you sit, the compression of the discs can cause a loss of flexibility over time.

Having a weak back will limit you from having that aero position that you’ve always wanted as you will not be able to hold the position nor will you be flexible enough to reach it.

Muscle Degeneration

Standing requires you to tense your abdominal muscles, which go unused when you sit, ultimately leading to weak abdominal muscles.

Enough said, without a strong core we won’t have a strong pedal stroke and won’t be able to hold an aero position for very long.

Now, is all lost? What can be done to undo this?

Knowing and acknowledging the problem is the first step to a solution.

What can be done to undo all these issues associated with sitting down too much? It’s not so much about working out the areas that are becoming weakened but prevent them from becoming a problem by taking some simple steps:

  • Remember to stand up and walk around at least once an hour
  • Periodically move around in your seat and make sure you sit with good posture
  • Stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch
  • Use a stand-up desk or an ergonomic chair
  • Have organized breaks throughout the day
  • Get out and have a walk during lunch time

How to Sit Smarter

Even after all that you’ve now read, sitting for work is still necessary, so the basics of good posture should allow the bones in your spine to stack well and permit the muscles alongside them to relax so when you breathe, each in-and-out breath will automatically lengthen and settle your spine.

Be informed and stay safe on the road

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