A Running Start

Get Fit and Enjoy an Active, Healthy Life

By Capt. Scott C. Sayler (Delta, Ret.)
Capt. Scott Sayler (Delta, Ret.) runs near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Inset: After 35 years of airline flying, Sayler retired in April.

Airline pilots have the best office in the world, but flying is a sedentary business. An airline career comes with its own array of obstacles, including poor food choices, disrupted circadian rhythms, and stress, which can easily lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s up to you to recognize these challenges and do something about them. Developing a plan and making it part of your daily routine is a great way to get started.

Nutrition, sleep, and exercise are the three pillars of personal fitness, but for now let’s focus on exercise and how running, in particular, has changed my life. It could change yours, too!

Daily aerobic exercise keeps you fit, increases your stamina and strength, reduces health risks, strengthens your heart, and helps you live longer. Plus, there are other benefits. According to Harvard University’s Dr. Allan Hamilton, “Daily exercise is the single most important factor for maintaining brain health. It also lowers your risk of dementia by more than 50 percent.”

On your mark

Before you get started, take a few minutes to evaluate your current health and fitness. Ask yourself where you are and where you’d like to be. Check with your doctor to see if you have any health concerns that might be exacerbated by a new exercise routine.

Your first important decision will be choosing an aerobic activity you’ll enjoy and that will be compatible with being an airline pilot. For me, that choice was running. The advantage of running is that it’s always available; there’s no need for a gym, bike, or pool.

You can run on layovers, enjoying the beautiful landscapes and cities that you’re fortunate enough to visit. You can certainly bike, swim, or row on your days off. There are plenty of books that talk about health. One of my favorites on how to take your health seriously while also making exercise fun is Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge.

Get set

Purchase a new pair of running shoes that works for you. Don’t run in that worn-out pair sitting in your closet. Ever since Nike’s Bill Bowerman developed the waffle sole back in the early 1970s, technological advancements in running-shoe design have improved with every year. Properly fitted shoes will provide both stability and support.

Every major city in America has a running-shoe store with lots of choices to suit your personal needs. While you’re there, get some new running gear, a couple of wicking t-shirts, running shorts, socks, and a visor or a hat. Why are these important? Beginning this new endeavor will certainly be rewarding, but it’s not going to be easy. In addition to making the activity more pleasant, these items can promote a more positive mindset. A GPS watch can also be helpful in managing your runs, especially on layovers in unfamiliar cities.

Walk before you run

Begin your new aerobic exercise routine in a moderate fashion, especially if it’s been a while since you last ran. Even if you know you can run, begin with a conservative approach. Beginners should start with a walking program. It takes time to establish a consistent and winning habit.

Use time versus distance to measure the length of your workout. If you’re having a sluggish day, which happens to all of us, you won’t be beating yourself up over your pace. And you don’t have to concern yourself with figuring out a suggested hotel loop or getting lost. Just do an out-and-back. Try this simple six-step plan:

  1. Begin by walking 20–30 minutes, six days a week for several weeks.
  2. Transition to 30–minute walks and literally run 10–15 steps, one to two times.
  3. Now that you’re running, alternate days of walking with your walk/run routine.
  4. Gradually increase the number of your running steps to 45–60.
  5. Transition those running steps to one to two minutes, two to three times per a 30–minute walk.
  6. Slowly, five minutes per week, increase running minutes toward the goal of a 45–minute run.

On the road again

Layovers of 12 hours or more allow for a reasonable run. If I had back-to-back short layovers in the 10–12 hour range, I’d get my run in before pickup and shorten my workout to 20–30 minutes.

If you’re fortunate enough to fly an aircraft with a cockpit that offers some headroom, I highly recommend standing for a few minutes each hour. Sitting for long periods creates numerous health concerns. If you’re unable to stand up, incorporate some exercises that address sitting for long periods of time. Check with your doctor or physical therapist.

On your days off, manage your time wisely as you prioritize your exercise. Don’t allow runs to interfere with family time. Be inclusive. Your partner or friends might like to join you.

Succeed with a personal coach

Many people understand the benefits of running, but it can be difficult to motivate yourself to get started. Even when you’re motivated, it’s often challenging to know how fast to begin, how far to go, and how to keep your workouts consistent, effective, and fun. All these challenges are made more difficult when you’re on the road in new places with a different schedule every month. Working with a personal coach can assist you every step of the way, customizing your workouts to fit your lifestyle and keeping you excited about your progress and trajectory.

Gym memberships often don’t make sense for pilots. We’re rarely in the same place long enough to make it worthwhile, and they can be expensive. Alternatively, a personal online coach is with you wherever you are in the world—and for the cost of a cup of coffee a day. A decade ago, personal coaches were primarily reserved for elite athletes, but today coaches are sought after by a broader clientele, including casual runners who are simply looking for help in developing a consistent routine.

I remember being new to the concept. On the recommendation of a collegiate distance runner, I began working with a personal coach. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my overall health, fitness, speed, and injury prevention. The value is summed up by online coach Jon Sinclair: “Coaching is an art and at present there is no machine, book, or system that can adequately replace the human mind in negotiating the numerous pitfalls of training or in developing individual programs that allow for human variability.”

A healthy life

It’s all about establishing new habits and making exercise fun. In Mathew Kelly’s The Rhythm of Life, the author says, “Success, achievement, excellence, and greatness are not accidents. They are the fruit of discipline. They are the results of a well-implemented plan.”

These are unprecedented times. Much of what’s going on around us is out of our control. However, we do have control over the choices we make related to our health. An airline career gives us an opportunity to literally run all over the world. To paraphrase singer Johnny Cash, “We’ve been everywhere, man!” From Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta, Ga.; Paris, France, to New York, N.Y.; and Haneda, Japan, to Los Angeles, Calif., here’s wishing you an active, healthy life along the way!

Disclaimer: The information presented in this column is based on the author’s experience gained from nearly 50 years of running. He is not a certified coach.


Some of My Most Memorable Layover Runs


On the Run

After 35 years as an airline pilot, Capt. Scott Sayler (Delta, Ret.) retired in April and is pursuing his lifelong love of sports and fitness as an online running coach for the Colorado Rerun Project.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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