Running is believed to alleviate stress, which suggests that runners make good employees because they have less stress. But how specifically does it help you be more productive and successful at work? We’ll dive into the research examining the specific ways trail running helps women be achieve more and feel happier.
Sitting at my desk, I suddenly realize that I’m holding my breath.
Goodness, when was the last time I exhaled?
I sigh to relieve the pressure in my lungs, then immediately become self-conscious that my colleagues can hear me through the translucent vinyl screens separating our cubicles.
My email inbox fills faster than I can process the messages, clients call for updates, bosses ask for reports. I feel buried under a mounting to-do list.
Leaving my desk to go to the bathroom feels self-indulgent.
Let alone go for a run. When was the last time I did that?
The days I do run flow more easily than days that I don’t. And yet, all too often I skip my run so I can tick off just a few more tasks before the day’s end.
But am I paying too high a price for that short-term productivity?
Sitting here without a break for almost eight hours, I feel like a slug. And that’s the insidious thing about stress; it builds subtly at first, and then it becomes such a normal part of the day that it’s easy to miss just how much it has eroded my mental state.
Millions of people in this country live with this kind of stress. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress a “workplace hazard.”
It’s hazardous not only because of lost productivity due to illness, but also because stress makes your brain work more slowly. It’s much harder to think critically, hold your attention, listen well or make decisions.
Chronic stress affects everyone differently, but in general, it makes you some degree of distracted, irritable, tired and less motivated to be productive. It raises the chance of catching a cold or other sickness or injury because you are so zoned out you walk right into that forklift or trip over the open filing cabinet.
Altogether, it’s figured that stress costs the economy more $300 billion a year in lost productivity.
How can one condition cause so much damage to our selves and the economy?
Men and Women Deal With Stress Differently
Sensing a threat to our personal well-being or safety triggers the stress response, a physiological response that includes a myriad of biochemical and physiological changes. These range from increased heart rate and blood pressure to the release of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone.
These changes are designed to prepare the body for so-called “fight or flight”, which means either battling or fleeing from the threat. The classic example often used to illustrate this response is that of the cave man encountering a saber-toothed tiger.
In this scenario, the stress response helps the cave man outrun the tiger or fight it off.
However, it turns out that this characterization of the stress response is based on research involving mostly male subjects.
Newer studies suggest that women’s typical stress response is actually quite different.
Instead of a “fight or flight” response, women are more likely to “tend and befriend”, which means they may try to soothe a stressful situation by reaching out for help or initiating dialogue. One reason for this may be that women lack a certain gene associated with aggression that gets triggered as part of the male stress response.
Women instead experience a rise in estrogen levels and other “pain-controlling internal opiates” that don’t encourage aggressive behavior.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that women handle their stress better than men. Thinking of my own experience, when I get stressed, I get emotional. As a woman, I don’t usually feel compelled to run away or pick a fight, but I do feel self doubt, fear that I’m being judged, insecure in my position and maybe a little threatened by the person with whom I’m in disagreement.
But that may stem from my lifelong fear of confrontation. So while it’s possible to measure certain biochemical shifts in response to stress, I believe that each woman’s stress response then gets filtered through her own unique set of beliefs, experiences and personality traits.
Regardless of your gender, responding to stress with too much aggression or emotion is unproductive and can negatively impact how you’re perceived at work. For that reason, having a proactive way of managing workplace stress is critical for one’s health and professional success.
Why Focus on Workplace Stress?
A lot of different things can create stress in our lives, but there’s something about workplace stress in particular that women really struggle with.
A 1998 study found that women are more likely than men to be insecure about their abilities in achievement settings. It is believed that this is because female employees are more likely to forgo their individual goals and focus more on supporting the priorities of their supervisors, co-workers or mentees.
While this kind of selflessness can make them empathetic teammates and good managers, it sometimes comes at a price. Their personal needs, dreams and desires in the workplace may take a back seat while they focus more time and energy on things that either help others or positively influence how their coworkers and supervisors perceive them. (For example, being supportive and agreeable is more endearing to others than strongly defending a point of view.)
This focus on being accepted and liked by others is one of many ways that women become more susceptible to workplace stress.
Which is why, in 2010, trail runner and researcher of organizational systems, Alison Boudreau, Ph.D., committed herself to examining this phenomenon.
“As someone who’s been in very stressful and unfulfilling jobs and for whom running was the best way to deal with my stress, I wanted to study how long-distance trail running helped women be more productive at work,” says Boudreau, who began life as an unlikely runner.
When Boudreau was born, doctors told her parents that due to a leg deformity that caused her severe pigeon toe, she would never walk correctly, let alone run. As a toddler, she was fitted with leg braces to correct the turned-in toes, but was discouraged from doing any high-impact sports.
But when Boudreau discovered road running—and then trail running—she knew she had discovered the sport for her.
Her research project involving diving deep into the literature related to the psychological impact of running and its effectiveness in reducing stress. She then conducted lengthy interviews with seven women runners of different experience levels; some ran roads and marathons, while others identified themselves are purely trail runners or ultrarunners.
“My research revealed that excessive job stress hits workers on a daily basis as a result of performance, interpersonal or physical demands,” says Boudreau. “And it supported the idea that distance trail running does provide increased job-stress relief and has a positive impact on work-related productivity in a number of ways.”
Trail running in particular seemed to yield greater benefits than road running.
[bctt tweet=”Study suggests that #Trailrunning is more effective than road running at reducing job stress. “]
Six Ways Trail Running Reduces Workplace Stress
While running does bring a sense of calm and peace that many consider meditative, there’s evidence that running’s benefits extend far beyond merely being a distraction from tough situations.
Boudreau identified the different ways that trail running reduces workplace stress:
1. Job Stress Relief.
Workplace stress is thought to cause a wide range of negative feelings, especially among women. Runners clearly believe that their running practice helps them counteract their work-related stress.
When one study participant felt pressure from her boss to quit, she was grateful for the support running gave her. “The whole time I was looking for a new job, I always had running. It rescued me from a downward spiral that would have been so easy to fall into.”
Another woman in the study who worked 50 to 60 hours a week (including nights and weekends), constantly struggled to keep her personal and work life separate. Running helped her be more self-reliant and decisive and helped her deal with frequent changes in management.
A third woman reported: “Whenever I get stressed, whether it’s work or personal, I always feel like getting out on the trails. It totally opens up my mind and calms me. It clears my mind and helps me think, which makes me a better contributor at work.”
2. Sense of Self-Efficacy.
The participants felt an increase in self-confidence that they could perform their work well, which enabled them to better persevere through daily projects. They became empowered and motivated to step out of their comfort zone in order to achieve goals.
They had an unrelenting belief that they could achieve anything they wanted to. No challenge was too big to overcome.
One participant said: “It’s the attitude that I can do it. Or maybe if I don’t have the answer right now, the answer will come.”
One trail runner who competes in ultramarathons feels that doing such arduous events makes her more resilient to big life changes. She said:
“Long-distance races are mentally difficult and so succeeding in them has given me confidence in myself. A mental breakdown and building back up again; that’s what happens during very long trail runs. I definitely feel my mental strength has become better from getting through the tough times in the long runs.”
3. Happier Demeanor and Enhanced Outlook.
Many of the runners in Boudreau’s study credit trail running with helping them feel happier and less overwhelmed at work. The study participants all felt that their more positive outlooks helped them to perform their daily tasks better.
When the women felt happier at work, they found it easier to make critical decisions independently, sell products or services, obtain new clients, process overdue invoices and write teaching materials.
One said: “Running gives me a new perspective; issues aren’t as big. It makes my job more fun.”
This mental shift seemed to occur more profoundly among those who ran trails rather than roads, particularly among women who had been running a long time.
As one trail ultrarunner put it: “When I run I am happy, and there is an overall sense that everything is well. I feel positive and joyful. I go have a really good trail run, and then bring my happiness to work.”
4. Time Management and Organizational Skills.
Trail running is credited for helping the women surveyed face time challenges and meet work deadlines, including goal-setting, planning action items and setting priorities.
One trail runner reported that when she runs, she thinks about what needs to be done and then the writes down a list upon her return to the office.
Another said that trail running helps her stay mentally focused and moving toward her career goals daily. She said:
“When starting my own business in commercial real estate basically from nothing, I had a three-year plan. Trail running kept me focused and was part of my routine. It really helped me keep going toward the goals I need to achieve along the way.”
One runner who competes in trail races said: “At work there are deadlines, just with documents. With trail races you have checkpoints. It’s the same idea at work. You have to meet certain deadlines on a timeline.”
5. Greater Discipline and Mental Focus with Career Goals.
Women who run regularly report having better focus, concentration and diligence with projects. They are independently driven to achieve daily goals.
Said one study participant: “Running just helps me keep on track and remain focused on work goals on an hourly basis. With starting my own business, it is very task oriented and tactical.”
Several women reported this increased mental focus occurred more often from trail running than from road running. For instance, one runner said that, compared to the difficulty of finishing a trail ultramarathon, her career goals seemed more achievable.
6. Conflict Management and Problem Solving.
All of the women Boudreau interviewed reported being better at handling conflict and solving problems at work. They described themselves as being more analytical, processing ideas, exploring solutions and practicing dialogues while running alone or with others.
For example, when running alone, one woman said she rehearsed difficult conversations in her mind so that she went into the actual encounters with more confidence and clarity.
Others said it’s easier to work out problems or process difficult situations when running alone on trails rather than in groups or on roads. “I could solve the world’s problems on the trail; everything just seems so fixable while I’m running,” said one study participant.
Additional benefits that came up repeatedly in Boudreau’s study were:
- Better sense of accomplishment
- Increased physical energy to perform their work
- Higher productivity and effectiveness at work
- Temporary escape from responsibilities
Is it Anecdote or Science?
The anecdotal reports in Boudreau’s studies carry even more weight when considered alongside the latest research on the effects of running on the brain’s biochemistry.
For example, in 2008, the New York Times reported on a German study that identified exactly how running changes your mood.
Looking at runners before and after a two-hour run, they found the test subjects to have elevated levels of endorphins in the brain, what has classically been called “runner’s high.” These endorphins lift runners’ mood in such a way that it gives rise to the positive feelings and mental states described by the women in Boudreau’s study.
I consider this as evidence that the benefits are not imagined, but biological. Running shapes your physiology and re-calibrates your biochemistry in ways that gives you the tools and clarity to perform you best in all areas of your life, especially at work.
[bctt tweet=”Running makes you a better employee, inspiring leader, dynamic problem solver, creative creator.”]
Whatever your passion or vocation, you do it better with running.