Mastering the Lunchtime Run

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In the second week of my first job, the director of Human Resources (HR) stuck his head into my office.

“David, a word,” he said, gesturing to the hallway. His voice echoed deep and guttural, dark with foreboding.

My spirits dropped. At best, I thought, my browsing history had raised some eyebrows (Are puppy videos against company policy?). At worst, my position was being discontinued (But I was good at fetching coffee, wasn’t I?).

“Your running clothes are not appropriate,” he growled once we got outside. “And your runs take too much time.”

I let out an inadvertent chuckle, delirious with joy that I still had my job. I wasn’t fired, I continued watching puppy videos and I learned to be more discreet with the compression garments that I wore to and from the office for lunch runs.

For many trail runners, “runch” is the most important meal of the day. Running at lunch provides a predictable window of opportunity to conquer some miles. Most office jobs involve about an hour of lunch, which is enough time to get a solid aerobic stimulus before sitting in front of a computer for a few more hours. Plus, if you’re aiming for sustainable high-volume training, lunch runs can be combined with a short run before or after work.

On the down side, running at lunch presents complex logistical challenges: You may have an hour-long break, but what about the time to get ready and clean up? Doesn’t sitting down all day increase your risk of injuries?

Here’s how to maximize the benefits of the lunchtime run, without getting in trouble with HR.

1. Don’t be sedentary while you work

Many studies indicate that if you are sedentary much of the time, your risk of heart disease and other ailments increases independently of your running habits. In addition to health impacts, being sedentary just makes everything tighter if you are trying to run midday.

So be sure to stay in motion during the work day. Many runners swear by a standing desk, and there are several adjustable options that allow you to alternate between sitting and standing.

When I worked an office job, I had three commandments written beside my computer. Every half hour: (1) walk around for three minutes; (2) do 30 foot circles in both directions; and (3) do 10 push-ups or one minute of light stretching. Then, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I’d try to escape to a conference room to put my feet up against the wall for three to five minutes. These little steps can keep your blood boiling and fluids flowing, increasing metabolic rate and keeping you looser throughout the day.

2. Start specifically preparing for your run one hour before

About an hour before you run (preferably after having put your feet up earlier in the day), drink 12-16 ounces of water, along with a chaser of coffee if you need the caffeine boost. Don’t eat for at least two hours beforehand—that may be an over-inclusive guideline, but it’s better to be safe than to paint the sidewalk with the contents of the office snack jar.

Try to stand for the 30 minutes before your run. Do light calf stretches, foot circles, a few leg shakes, and generally let your body limber up. Whatever you do, don’t imitate a bear by hibernating at your desk chair for hours and then expect to run immediately after getting out of your den. Being hunched over at a computer shortens your hip flexors and your hamstrings, possibly contributing to maladies like hip flexor tendinitis. Aside from specific injuries, long periods of sitting can just make you feel stiff for the first few minutes of your run.

3. Allocate two minutes for warm-up and two minutes for cool-down

Once you escape the office, do a quick change of clothes, followed by a two-minute warm-up (just do the lunge matrix and leg swings to save time). While it cuts into your run, it’s better to lose two minutes of jogging a day than to lose six weeks from a stress injury caused by inadequate warm-up.

Once you finish the run, spend a couple minutes relaxing before heading back into the office, doing some leg swings and gathering your composure. The return to your cube can be jarring, so ease back in.

If changing on both ends takes six minutes total (achievable with practice!), you can get a 50-minute run out of an hour break. After you return to the office, continue the same movement patterns you usually do to avoid being too sedentary, including the light stretching every half hour.

4. Master the sink shower (and the power of baby wipes)

The most difficult part of lunch runs is preventing your stench from emanating out of your office like squiggly lines on a cartoon character. Wardrobe requirements vary—for most jobs, you can have your work clothes in a bag that you stash either in the office, or in a safe place you can access before returning to the office (my solution to the HR problem).

But that doesn’t solve the biggest problem of all—how to avoid sweating like a broken fire hydrant on your computer keyboard. The solution, pioneered by the queen of the lunch run—Emily Kraus, Stanford Medicine fellow and Sean O’Brien 50K course-record holder—is baby wipes. Kraus often has short, unpredictable windows to exercise during her immensely busy schedule. She always has running clothes handy, along with some baby wipes. After she cools down, she can quickly wash off using the wipes and change into formal attire in just a few minutes.

If you have access to a sink, you can do the same thing with a small towel. Just never expect any of these options to yield perfect results. You may still smell a bit. You may be just a bit late to get back into the office, or early to leave.

But while everyone else is bored to tears and counting down the minutes until quitting time, you’ll be sitting there with a mischievous smile. That is the smile of lunch miles.

Related: The Five-Day Running Week.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play

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