The active commuters making travelling to work a workout

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Rain or shine, at 5.30am Clair Heaviside leaves her Peak District home, dons a head torch and gloves and runs the equivalent of a half marathon to her office in Manchester. The founder and creative director of digital marketing agency Serotonin makes the early departure four times a week, though sometimes runs half the distance and travels the rest on the train. “It depends on the training block I am in. The important thing is — I always run.”

In the winter, Google DeepMind researcher Pablo Samuel Castro wakes up at 4.30am, sometimes to -20C temperatures, and skis cross-country from Ottawa for up to 40 minutes before boarding a train to Montreal. He keeps to snow flattened by walkers. “I can slide more and get up some speed,” he says. When there is not enough snow he tends to walk; in summer, he bikes.

The perk for Castro is to “get my fitness in while also listening to a podcast or mulling over a research problem”. Heaviside says her morning run is part of her ultra marathon training and sets her up “mentally and physically”. After washing and changing, she has an hour or so of “quiet work before anyone else gets in”.

Advocates of active commuting — combining a journey to work with physical activity — extol the benefits not just to fitness but mental health. A University of Edinburgh study this year found cycle commuting “reduced mental ill-health”. Heaviside says running boosts her resilience and determination, teaching her the importance of consistency over motivation.

Anthony Duggan, chair of property group Knight Frank Europe, says he has had some of his “biggest breakthroughs” thinking about work while cycling across London to the office. There are also cost savings, and broader benefits, such as reductions in pollution and carbon emissions.

The pandemic boosted cycling as people sought socially distanced alternatives to public transport and exercise, while sports centres were closed. One report found an 8 per cent increase in cycling across 11 EU countries, although initially this was more for leisure than commuting as more people worked from home. Bicycle makers around the world reported problems keeping up with demand. Cities introduced temporary cycling lanes and imposed vehicle restrictions on some roads. A US study found 32 of 42 large European cities and 102 of 200 American cities built or expanded bike lanes, with the most appearing in New York (102km), London (100km), Montreal (88km) and Paris (80km).

Not all of this lasted: a 2022 study by US academics found 75 per cent of 487 measures came to an end. Others spurred investment in infrastructure. Such policies have become entangled in culture wars, pitting cyclists against car owners. Post-pandemic trends are still emerging. In the UK, cycling levels have subsided since pandemic highs. But charity Cycling UK reports sustained growth in inner London “because of the vastly better cycling infrastructure”. Government figures show the percentage of employed people who usually cycled to work in inner London was 7.1 per cent in 2019, rising to 13.3 per cent in 2021 and 11.2 the next year. Walking rose from 11.5 per cent to 16.1 per cent between 2019 and 2022. 

One barrier to running to work, says Simon Cook, a human geographer at Birmingham City University, is a lack of awareness. “People just don’t consider running an option for commuting or see it as a mode of transport.”

Alex Heatzig, with several of his co-workers, on his 50-mile commute to work by bike from his San Francisco house to Cupertino office
Alex Heatzig , with several of his co-workers, on his 50-mile commute to work by bike from his San Francisco house to Cupertino office
Pablo Samuel Castro, a Google DeepMind researcher based in Canada who skis into work
In the winter, Pablo Samuel Castro wakes up at 4.30am, sometimes to -20C temperatures, and skis cross-country from Ottawa for up to 40 minutes before boarding a train to Montreal

When researching “run-commuters” before the pandemic, Cook found they were mostly committed runners and often “urban-dwelling middle-aged white men in highly paid professional jobs”, with more than three quarters covering between 3 and 8.99 miles. Tasha Thompson, founder of London-based community group Black Girls Do Run, hopes this might change. Informal groups, boosted by pandemic membership, are “doing a great job” encouraging those nervous of competitive clubs, and some members have started running to work. “We’ve got women doing ultra distances now who’d never thought of doing it.”

Thompson used to run regularly when her children were young, grabbing a precious window of time to cover eight miles from the hospital where she was based to her north-west London home. She would have preferred morning runs, but there were no work showers. Once she forgot to pack her running tights. “I ran home in my dress and trainers.”

Cook says good changing facilities encourage runners, though some get around this by using gym showers, running slowly to prevent sweating or only doing it one way at the end of their work day. Typical preparation involves limiting the load in a rucksack, or planning a schedule that alternates with public transport.

Duggan says his cycling commute needs little forethought, aside from checking weather and evening plans. “It is infinitely simpler now that I don’t have to wear a suit every day.”

Not so for Heaviside, who takes a suitcase on the train to leave at the office on Mondays that includes work outfits, laptop and make-up for the week. Packing “is like setting the intention — it helps to get me in the mindset.” 

Will Swift, who took up cycling 12 miles each way along the South Coast to the office four years ago, says he uses the ride to work to think about plans for the day, and the journey home to reflect on his achievements. “By the time I was home I was able to concentrate on my family life and felt a lot less stressed.” For him, these benefits outweigh the punctures and snow.

Employers can help active commuters with cycle parks and schemes providing discounts on equipment. “There are lots of simple initiatives workplaces can introduce, from encouraging walking meetings to having more flexible working to give employees with children time to walk them to school,” says Rachel Lee, policy manager at Living Streets, which campaigns for walking.

Alex Heatzig’s Silicon Valley employer not only has a bike locker and showers but a bus that can take him, and his bicycle, home after a 50-mile cycle commute from his San Francisco house to Cupertino office. Between April and November “before it gets too cold” he makes the trip weekly with fellow workers, sometimes clocking up 75 miles on a scenic route.

“Any given week, we will have four to 10 folks,” Heatzig says. “It offers me an amazing way to create a community within my work, which is awesome for networking.”

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