How long distance running has changed how I approach my PhD

I have somehow found myself signed up to the ‘Great Scottish Run’ Half-Marathon in Glasgow on Sunday. I’m not sure how this happened, but I blame ‘PhD brain’. You know that feeling: you’ve been locked away writing for weeks, your social life is a distant memory and doing literally anything else seems like a more attractive (and much more achievable) prospect than finishing that chapter. Maybe it’s just me?

Anyway, I find the prospect of a half marathon intimidating. I am not a long distance runner. I’m not even a sprinter. I’m a ‘plod along for 30 minutes so you can eat that extra piece of cake’ kind of runner. So why am I attempting to run a half marathon? At the risk of being one of those people who extols the virtues of exercise to lots of busy folk who have heard it all before, here’s why, for me, running is a non-negotiable part of my PhD routine.

Running helps me to separate work and the rest of my day

I run in the evening – between 5-7pm, straight after I finish PhD work for the day. On the days I don’t run, I find it really difficult to switch off. If you’re anything like me, your PhD is on your mind constantly – in interactions with friends & family, on your commute, when you watch TV. Sitting at a computer all day can get really frustrating, and it’s hard not to take that home with you (especially if you often work from home, as I do). Going for a run separates my work time from the rest of the evening and tells my mind and body to switch from PhD-ing to relaxing.

Great glen way.jpg

As a runner, living next to the Great Glen Way is fantastic – the big question is: do I take the high road or the low road?

Running is a refreshing distraction

The repetitive nature of running helps to clear my mind. There are days I’ve sat at my desk for 8 hours straight trying to work out the best structure for a piece of writing, working out an angle for a conference paper, or struggling to understand a new theoretical approach. Then, during my evening run it just clicks into place. This might be because even after years of short distance running, I still find every run difficult at some point. It might be getting started off after hours at my desk, perhaps it’s in the middle of the route when I just want to be back at home, and sometimes it’s the final push when I’m tiring out. Regardless, there’s always a certain point during a run when all of my other thoughts are replaced by ‘this, right now, is really hard’. It sounds awful, but it’s an excellent way of clearing everything else out of my mind and forcing me to concentrate on the present. When I return to my desk I feel like I’ve had a proper break from whatever issue I am working through, and I’m able to see it with fresh eyes.

Run Caledonian Canal.JPG

Jogging along paths like this one next to the Caledonian Canal helps to clear my mind after a day at my desk

Running is really good for my mental health

It sounds like a cliché, but in my experience, when I don’t take care of my body, my brain doesn’t function properly either. Undertaking a PhD is stressful for everyone, at different points and to varying degrees. Tackling a subject that no one else has ever explored before will be accompanied by uncertainties, and this is bound to cause stress sometimes. Making a unique contribution to knowledge means you have to do it alone (although the support of supervisors, loved ones and other PhD students is invaluable). PhD students are more likely than the general population to develop mental health issues so it’s essential that we take care of ourselves even during our busiest periods. This is one reason why I don’t see exercise as separate from my studies, but as an intrinsic part of my PhD routine.

Why a half-marathon?

All of the above benefits accompany the short-distance running that I’ve done for years. Before this year, the furthest I’d run was 6 miles, once or twice, and I was getting along fine with my regular 3 mile runs. So why did I chose to sign up for a half marathon during the first year of my PhD? Well, I needed a challenge. I don’t mean that in the way you might think. In all honesty, doing a PhD is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. It’s long-term, and (hopefully!) full of incremental progress which can be quite difficult to measure immediately. I needed something that was difficult enough to take my mind off the enormity of the task of completing a PhD, but in a totally different way. Finding the time to train for long runs, discovering new routes and slowly increasing my distances has given me something to focus on other than my project.


Reflections on the Caledonian Canal

Running longer distances has also helped me shift my mindset when it comes to how I think about my PhD. For years, long distance running was something ‘other people’ did, and I genuinely never thought I would even attempt a half-marathon. It requires a totally different approach to running: even when you feel like you could go faster early on, you have to take a longer term view and also think about how to conserve energy. Mostly, it has required a mental effort – to go from ‘I can’t run this distance, it’s too hard’, to ‘this is really hard, but I’ve trained for this and I’ve been able to push through really difficult sections in the past’.

An unexpected benefit of training for a half marathon has been a change in the way I approach my PhD, especially on really hard days. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do a PhD, and sometimes it still feels like something only ‘other people’ can do. During my undergraduate or Masters, short-term intense effort was enough to get me through but the past year has made me realise that a PhD requires a long distance mindset.

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