Do you avoid running because work leaves you too drained to exercise at the end of the day, or the prospect of running in the dark before work feels downright unappealing? Running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, and yet a 9-5 schedule can make starting a running habit feel impossible. 

When I committed to training for a marathon back in the winter of 2019, I was self-aware enough to realize that I wouldn’t stick to my weekday training if I had to wake up in the pre-dawn cold to stumble down snowy streets in a headlamp. Proactively, I shared my goal with my boss, and asked if I could adjust my hours: instead of running at 5:30am, I headed straight to the office. By logging an extra hour of work every morning, I was able to extend my lunch hour three days a week, enough to get in the longer runs that I needed for marathon training, in the middle of the day.

Inadvertently, I created a personal productivity hack that worked wonders: I found that on the days that I escaped the office for a run, I was more focused, positive, and open to  new ideas. The run broke up long workdays, and gave me something to look forward to. On post-run afternoons, I felt transformed – I was friendlier with my coworkers, more patient with customers, and more content to be at work (and I stopped counting down the minutes until I could get out the door to the gym!).

How exactly did the mid-day run make me better at my job?

1. Stronger task management

For starters, I found that after running my focus was sharper, and I checked more off of my to-do list. Explaining this phenomenon, a recent review of literature concluded that aerobic exercise (like running) boosts what psychologists call “executive function” – a set of strategic cognitive skills like working memory and task-switching that help us complete tasks and achieve goals [].

2. Resistance to stress

From challenging colleagues to last-minute demands, workplace stress impacted me less on days when I got out for my run. I left the office less tense, and ruminated over negative events less frequently. While the mechanism for how running can act as a stress-buffer still remains to be explored, it’s not surprising that a research review found that exercise like my lunchtime runs “confers enduring resilience to stress” [].

3. Increased creativity

Finally, escaping my office to run unlocked my creativity during mid-day roadblocks, and helped me envision problems from new angles. Indeed, psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have found that the brain associates forward motion with the future []. Could it be that simply moving through space while on the run prompted me to problem-solve in new perspectives?

6 strategies to make your lunch-hour workout a reality

While the benefits are enticing, the logistics of a lunchtime routine can be daunting. Consider these 6 tips to overcome any hurdles to getting started on your own lunchtime routine

1. Adjust your work schedule

If you’re able to, adjust your work hours to come in earlier or leave later, so that you can take a longer lunch. Plan in advance which days you’ll run, and block that time off on your calendar as unavailable. Guard your lunchtime run commitment – don’t let others schedule over it!

2. Map your route

Use google maps to explore the area surrounding your office, and find a suitable running route. You may be surprised to find a hidden path or park that you’ve never noticed from your commute. Ideally, choose a route that will allow you to escape at least partially into nature.

3. Start easy

Save high intensity runs for the weekend, or after work. After all, you want your lunchtime workout to wake you up, not leave you drained. Ease into your new habit gradually, especially if running is new for you.

4. Pack snacks

Pack a lunch the night before, so that you’ll have simple, high energy items available when you finish your run. By stocking your desk with foods that you can snack on while reading emails or catching up on paperwork, you won’t have to waste precious run-time on procuring your lunch.

5. Plan for efficient outfit changes

If you aren’t working from home and your workplace doesn’t offer a locker room, consider investing in a membership at a nearby gym. Or, If you’re a less sweaty runner than I am, could you pack towelettes and deodorant, and forego a post-run shower? Pack a gym bag with everything you’ll need, so you can focus on your run instead of on the stress of getting re-dressed for work.

6. Make it a team effort

Are there one or two other people in your office who might be interested in starting a running club? Finding a workout buddy within your office can be a sure way to stick to your personal commitment, as you can hold each other accountable. Plus, running with coworkers can help you build connections and camaraderie, and allow you to discuss work challenges in a new light. 

The takeaway. 

A mid-day run could be your secret weapon to energizing your daily routine. The mental benefits are clear: from focus, to resilience, to creativity, running rewires our brains for the better. All it takes is a little flexibility and ingenuity to fit this super-powered brain boost into your day.