The Long-Term Effects of “COVID Posture” Are Killing Your Training
There’s a new crop of tri-related injuries as a result of extended working from home. A top physical therapist weighs in on what he’s seeing (and how to fix it).
What is “COVID posture,” and is it as contagious as the Omicron variant?
First: It’s a phrase I just made up, and as far as I know, it is not contagious. What’s not made up, however, is the increase in patients that I see with injuries stemming from (very) faulty posture. When we consider repetitive trauma, you may imagine a baseball pitcher damaging his elbow by throwing too often, or a tennis player sharpening his serving skills and injuring her shoulder. The same thing applies here: prolonged positioning in a faulty position can cause repetitive injuries to the musculoskeletal system. This affects other aspects of your life, including tri training.
Some work-from-home triathletes have found a way to train more than ever with some “creative” scheduling and enviable home office set-ups. If you have figured out how to make the most of your new normal, kudos to you—keep up the good(-ish) work and make sure your recovery does not get ignored (or those pesky work emails). However, many are still working on a laptop while seated at the couch or at the dining room table from a laptop. This creates some new physical problems that need to be addressed right away.
How your body should work
Let’s start with a very brief explanation of what your body is supposed to be doing for you: Your cervical spine (neck) provides stability and support for your skull and brainstem and allows for range of motion of your head. The thoracic spine (mid back) allows for appropriate motion and is an attachment point for multiple musculature, including the scapula—allowing for appropriate shoulder motion. Finally, the lumbar spine (lower back) provides support for your body weight and articulates with your pelvic girdle aiding in efficient hip and leg motion. Although your spine does far more, this is a good starting place to illustrate how faulty posture can compromise your training.
What you’re doing wrong
At the office, you likely are working in an ergonomically correct position and sitting in a desk chair with multiple adjustment points to provide you comfort and support. Your day involves breaks: getting up to see a colleague, getting up to go to the conference room, getting up to go to the break room, getting up to go out to lunch, getting up to walk out from the office towards the bathrooms, getting up!
But when working from home, you find yourself in the couch and slouch position with your laptop, and you’ve mastered the “Jabba the Hutt” style of working where you only have to reach for things (like food) strategically placed around you. Sounds great—until you examine what has changed in your body, and why that’s bad for you as a triathlete.Section divider
How to fix COVID posture issues
Problem: Keyboard neck
The forward head posture from craning over your computer/keyboard creates instability in your cervical spine, excessive compression on the upper cervical vertebrae and discs, and muscular tightness that limits range of motion.
How it affects your training
- Swim – Limited rotation for breathing during swimming, reduced ability to sight ahead
- Bike – Pain at the base of your neck when looking ahead while in the aero bars
- Run – Excessive jarring and potential pain due to loss of stability and forward center of mass (weight of head is in front of spine for support)
Fix it with: Chin Tucks
- Stand with the spine up against a wall or door frame.
- Next, place your feet out about 8 cm from the edge of the wall or door frame.
- Keeping the spine against the wall, pull the upper back and head back until the back of the head touches the surface. It is important to make sure that the chin is down so that your head is pulled straight back and not looking up.
- Hold your head against the wall for five seconds.
- Repeat 10 times.
Problem: Stiff spine
The rounding of the thoracic spine, referred to as kyphosis, creates a stiff mid back. The loss of mobility restricts full mobility of the shoulders and reduces efficiency of the muscles that originate along the spine.
How it affects your training
- Swim – Limited shoulder range of motion, limited rotational motion causing faulty stroke mechanics which can lead to impingement pain
- Bike – Reduced ability to look up safely while riding in the aero bars (think of the cat/cow yoga exercise where there is no cow or reversal of that kyphosis)
- Run – Likely increased initial contact impact and lower leg pain as you are flexed over courtesy of your new warped Pringles-chip posture
Fix it with: Thoracic spine mobility with foam roll
- Lie with the foam roller horizontally across your upper back, and place your hands behind your head for support.
- From that position, slowly dip your head back toward the floor to mobilize the thoracic spine into extension. Do three to five repetitions starting at the top, then move up and down the spine to mobilize individual segments.
Fix it with: Pectoral stretch with foam roll
- Lie face up vertically on a foam roller with your head and tailbone supported, keeping both knees bent so feet are flat on the floor.
- Bring your arms out to the side like the letter “T” and relax. Breathe into this stretch. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
Fix it with: Prone swimmers
- Lie on your stomach with your arms and legs extended.
- Raise your alternate arm and leg simultaneously, holding for 1-2 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side. Do 10-20 repetitions on each side.
Problem: Tight hips and hamstrings
Loss of lumbar lordosis/rounding of your lumbar spine creates instability and places your pelvis in a rounded position resulting in hip flexor and hamstrings muscle adaptive shortening (tight muscles).
How it affects your training
- Swim – Makes it challenging to get into a neutral position where your legs are not dragging tucked underneath you. Restricts full motion of the hips creating inefficiency in your kick.
- Bike – Hip flexor tightness can create a serious condition of occlusion of the femoral artery or nerve, hamstrings tightness will reduce your ability to extend sufficiently through the pedal stroke
- Run – Muscular restrictions will limit your stride length and efficiency of movement
Fix it with: Cat-cow
- Begin with your hands and knees on the floor. Make sure your knees are under your hips, and your wrists are under your shoulders. Begin in a neutral spine position, with your back flat and your abs engaged. Take a big deep inhale.
- On the exhale, round your spine up towards the ceiling, and imagine you’re pulling your belly button up towards your spine, really engaging your abs.
- Tuck your chin towards your chest, and let your neck release. This is your cat-like shape.
- On your inhale, arch your back, let your belly relax and go loose. Lift your head and tailbone up towards the sky — without putting any unnecessary pressure on your neck. This is the cow portion of the pose.
- Continue flowing back and forth from cat pose to cow pose, and connect your breath to each movement — inhale for cow pose and exhale on cat pose. Repeat for at least 10 rounds.
Fix it with: Hip flexor stretch
- Begin in a kneeling position with your left knee in front of the right, at a 90-degree angle.
- Tilt your pelvis posteriorly (bring your tailbone forward).
- Lean slightly forward until you feel a stretch in your right hip flexor
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
- Do 2-3 reps on each side. Do not arch your back when you do this. Keep your pelvis tucked in.
Fix it with: Hamstring stretch
- Lie on your back in or by a doorway.
- Slide the leg to be stretched up the wall until you feel a comfortable stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each leg.
How to make working at home work for you
Setting a timer on your phone to get up and unfurl your “Pringle physique” every 45-60 minutes will do wonders towards reducing poor postural adaptations.
If you have the opportunity to work at a home desk, do your best to claim the workspace. At the very least, work from your dining table and chair. You should avoid soft surfaces such as the couch or sofa chair, as they do not provide adequate support.
Make stretching and exercise a priority
Use the time saved by not having a work commute to do those dreaded stretches and core stability exercises you always said you would do (but haven’t been).