Running and the art of Cognitive Housekeeping

    I love running. It hasn’t always been this way. Back when I was sixteen and had just joined the British Army, I saw running as a necessary evil, a means to an end but over the past two decades my passion for running has developed through repetition and mastering the fundamentals. Most importantly I have learned that for me, the biggest beenfit of running is not in its physical stimuli but in the way that it develops mental discipline and robustness. This has never been more clearly illustrated to me than in the last quarter of 2022 when I suffered what is known in the running community as a calf heart attack. This injury stopped me from doing any running at all for nine weeks. The detrimental effect on my physical robustness was clear (also not helped by easy access to lots of Christmas food) but the bigger challenge for me was that it had a significant impact on my mental clarity especially around my work and could have easily lead to burnout if it wasn’t for some careful self-reflection and help from my colleagues who thankfully noticed some red flags before I did.

    My injury struck in a busy time for my team. I had taken on some extra responsibilities, we had some new team members that I was helping to ramp up, I had just returned from Defcon in the United States and recovered from a nasty bout of Covid and as someone with a rather obsessive personality, I tend to immerse myself in my work, sometimes in a less than healthy way. I usually combat this with running as it gets me away from my computer, allowing me to do some cognitive housekeeping. By this I mean that I can allow myself to think without distraction and let my mind wander or tackle problems in a more abstract way. Without the outlet provided by my daily run, I found that I was simply working longer and longer hours and trying to do more and more work but without the mental clarity gained from running, I was actually delivering less value than before.

    So what can I take away from this experience? Well, firstly, I know that in order to deliver my best work, I need an outlet that is totally away from a screen or the distractions of daily life. Also, that our peers can often see our own blind spots better than we can ourselves and that there is no shame in asking for help when you need it. I also learned a tough lesson about running and how it can humble you when you think you know better than to listen to your body telling you to take a break. I think if there was one thing I could take from this experience, it would be that we should reflect and listen for signs that we need to take a break. This goes for both work and running. The alternative is burnout or injury.