It may be cold and dark outside, but you don't have to log all your miles inside on a treadmill. As long as you can get away from your desk (or other commitments) during the day, a one-hour lunch break is all you need to improve your running.
If you give yourself five minutes to change clothes and 15 minutes to clean up afterward, you've got 40 minutes to work out. "It's dark when I leave for work and dark when I get home," says Tim Johnson, a marathoner and lab-safety officer in Minneapolis. "My lunch break runs help me maintain a solid base of fitness throughout the winter."
Forty minutes is plenty for most runners to log a respectable distance, even at an easy pace. Still, the most efficient use of your lunch break is to focus on quality workouts—such as speed sessions, hills, and tempo runs. These harder efforts will improve your pace, stride, and running economy, and get you primed for spring racing season.
"Two easy short runs can maintain a weekend warrior," says Justin Peschka, a running, cycling, and triathlon coach with Carmichael Training Systems in Tucson. "But two short and intense efforts per week will make you faster."
Midday is actually ideal for quality workouts, as your muscles are more warmed up than in the mornings and you're not as tired as you may be heading into evening runs, says Susan Paul, a running coach with the Track Shack, in Orlando. "If you're used to running in the mornings or evenings, lunch break workouts might take some getting used to," she says. "But once you adjust, they're very effective."
For hard-charging workers and time-pressed parents, the biggest challenge of the midday run isn't the running itself, it's breaking away for it. If you find yourself working through your workout, you may need to set an alarm on your computer for 11:30 a.m.-or even earlier, to remind yourself to have a light snack so you have energy for your run. Invite coworkers who run to come along, says Katie Blackett, the 2007 National Marathon winner and chief executive officer of the Colorado Mountain Club, who often runs at lunch.
Meeting up with someone will force you to get out, which may be worth it even if that means adjusting your workout plans. Blackett and a coworker started a weekly "team building" run at her last job, with five to 10 people going out for easy runs of three to six miles. "It was fun, not fast," says Blackett, who lives in Boulder. "It was a chance to talk to people you normally didn't interact with, and people from all different departments came out."
Though Johnson had a scheduled noon break from his lab duties, he didn't feel completely comfortable leaving to run at first. "I was worried my coworkers and manager would think I was doing less work," he says. He casually let them know that he was heading out for a run, and over time, they started asking about what marathons he was working toward. "People don't get interested in the training," he says. "But they all recognize the marathon and its significance."
And if you think your lunchtime run will wipe you out for the rest of the day, rest assured. The opposite is true: A quick shot of exercise can prevent a late-day slide into lethargy. Your metabolism stays elevated for up to four hours after a run, especially after intense workouts like intervals. A 2005 study in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise showed that workers' moods, productivity, work quality, and ability to meet deadlines improved dramatically on days when they exercised.
"You relieve stress, reduce muscle tension that builds up from sitting at a desk, and increase the oxygen in your blood," says Kara Mohr, an exercise physiologist based in Louisville, Kentucky. "You'll return to your desk with a better mood and a sharper mind." And you'll be ready to do some fast work.