Pam Walker doesn’t take the easy way to work.
Two days a week, the 46-year-old clinical emergency medicine pharmacist runs 15.6 miles over hilly dirt roads to her job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After work, she laces up her shoes again and spends another 2.5 hours running home to suburban South Lyon.
Walker recognizes that most commuters consider her distance runs to and from work a little insane, but she insists that the sunrise runs past farms and horses mentally prepare her for the long workday ahead.
“Those running endorphins help with my creativity for projects,” Walker says.
Walker is one of a growing number of people who are maximizing their exercise time by running to work. The Run Commuter (TRC), which launched in April 2011, is a website devoted to tips and stories about run commuting, including backpack reviews, advice on how to get started, and regular blog posts from site users.
It all suggests that run commuting is becoming increasingly popular, says Kyle Torok, one of TRC’s founders. In the past year, TRC has seen its number of users—60 percent of whom are American—increase 191 percent.
“We hear from people all over the world who have started run commuting in recent years,” Torok says.
The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t break out statistics on people running to work but tracks that about 3 percent walk, which could include runners. In major cities, that number is typically much higher. In Boston, for instance, 15 percent walk to work.
Most of the runners sharing stories on the site cover three to seven miles each way during their commutes, Torok says. The site plans to send out a survey in late summer to collect more information on run commuters' demographics and motivations. Torok says more women than men share stories on the site, but that might just be indicative of a woman’s inclination to engage in social online activity.
Most run commuters take it up to avoid traffic and transportation costs and to put themselves in a better mood for the workday. Running to work isn’t as fast or efficient as bicycle commuting, but it allows for a harder workout.
For commuters with nonstop work and family lives, run commuting is often the only chance they have to exercise. TRC’s other founder, Josh Woiderski, has two young children and a third on the way and finds his commute time the best way to log his miles.
There is one considerable hurdle—every run commuter has to figure out how to clean up when they reach the office. “We hear from a lot of women that they have to be more presentable at the office,” Torok says. “Men typically feel they can be more scruffy.”
Torok, who works for the government and has no office shower, goes into a locking bathroom and uses wipes to mop up the sweat. He keeps a large pack of Huggies baby wipes in his desk drawer, along with deodorant, soap, comb, and towel. Other showerless run commuters get even more creative. If they belong to a nearby gym, they use the locker rooms there. A German wrote to TRC about his practice of keeping a small washtub at his desk. He fills it with water in a private restroom, stands in it, does a sort of sponge bath to rinse himself off, and then empties the tub in the sink.
Then there are the logistics of transporting clothing and gear to and from the office. This often involves more planning than bike commuting, as runners don’t have the luxury of strapping panniers on a bike and filling them with daily supplies.
Torok uses the days he bike commutes to carry heavier loads and haul extra work clothes to the office, where he keeps a supply of five pairs of pants, six shirts, and two pairs of dress shoes. Even if run commuters don’t want to leave a full wardrobe at the office, Torok recommends they always keep the most critical clothing items in their desk drawers. “The most important thing is an emergency pair of underwear and socks at your desk, because they are so easy to forget,” Torok says.
Investing in the right running backpack is also key to a comfortable and successful run commute. The search term “running backpack” brings the most people to TRC, suggesting it’s a priority for those considering running to work. TRC’s running backpack roundup includes price and size details for 24 different packs, from brands like UltrAspire, CamelBak, and Black Diamond. Some of the packs also link to lengthier blog reviews on the site.
Torok relies on a snug hip belt and chest strap to keep his pack from swaying as he runs; side compression straps distribute the weight. The wide availability of both gender-neutral and women-specific running packs makes it easier for commuters to find a backpack that fits.
Many run commuters prioritize gear that can withstand a variety of weather. Blog posts on TRC tackle running through subzero temperatures in Ottawa winters, waterproofing packs with plastic grocery bags for rainy runs, and enduring the heat and humidity of sweaty East Coast summers.
Though the stories on TRC vary from Walker’s monster rural commute to quick city jaunts, Torok believes all run commutes are inherently interesting.
“You smell the honeysuckle, the lemon pie factory, or the smoky barbecue,” Torok says of his run commute through Atlanta. “You sometimes get that on a bike, but you never get that in a car.”