CAREER COLUMN

Embracing challenge: combining marathon training with graduate studies

Preparing for three races in three years at university showed Kathryn Wierenga parallels between running and PhD work.
Kathryn Wierenga is a PhD student in biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

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Training regimens in both athletics and academia help to build up strength and perseverance.Credit: Getty

As a first-year PhD student, I decided to run my first marathon. Now, in my fourth year of my biochemistry and molecular-biology programme at Michigan State University, East Lansing, I’m a three-time marathoner. During my hours in the laboratory and on the road, I’ve realized that the training for a PhD and for a marathon are very similar. Here are some of the parallels I’ve found:

Each step takes you toward a larger goal

About six months into my PhD, I told my husband how frustrated I was that my experiments weren’t working. I was struggling to replicate my results and was embarrassed by my inconclusive data. I felt like I’d made no progress since I joined the lab. In just one hour, my frustration took me into a downward spiral. Although my husband tried to reassure me that things would improve, I ended up sobbing about how I was never going to finish this programme.

The way I felt at the beginning of my PhD is similar to how I felt after I signed up for my first marathon. I hadn’t planned on signing up for a race. A friend was selling his entry, because he could no longer run, and I was intrigued. I had been a runner most of my life, but I could hardly imagine my legs carrying me for 42.2 kilometres (26.2 miles), and I wasn’t sure whether I could handle the heavy training. I embarked on a three-month training plan. Week by week, the runs got longer and I became stronger. Soon, I was running 24 kilometres, then 30, then 32. I actually began looking forward to those long runs, just to see what new roads I could find as my legs carried me farther than ever before. On race day, I thought back to all those miles I’d run in training, and how they had made me strong enough to cover the ones that lay ahead.

Kathryn Wierenga and her husband

Kathryn Wierenga and her husband at the race expo the day before the 2019 TCS New York City marathon.Credit: Jill Wierenga

A few months after lamenting my lack of progress in the lab, things started coming together. I had finally optimized the conditions for my experiments and was able to effectively test my hypotheses. My many months of troubleshooting had led me to an exciting model that investigated an important inflammatory pathway, and this became the core of my first article manuscript. Looking back, those initial disheartening experiences were nothing more than the equivalent of training runs. They were making me more resilient and resourceful while I worked towards my goals.

Having a buddy always helps

I’ve always considered myself introverted and self-motivated, so I was initially undeterred by the thought of solitary marathon training. However, when I began training for my second marathon, I found it harder and harder to convince myself to get out of the door for those dark, early morning runs or to lace up my shoes after a long day in the lab. By a stroke of luck, a mutual friend introduced me to another runner, named Jordyn, who coincidentally was training for the same race. We began meeting for weekly sessions at the gym and after work to go running. Knowing that someone else was meeting me made it easier to get out of bed when the alarm went off.

I began implementing a similar strategy with my writing. I realized that, like running, this endeavour might be less lonely if I shared it with colleagues. I asked around in my department and identified other students working on a writing project during the autumn semester. Now, a small group of us meet weekly for two hours of writing, and we share our goals and deadlines. This accountability and camaraderie gives me the motivation to dedicate time to projects that often get put on the back burner, and it even makes them more enjoyable.

Recovery is crucial

One of the most difficult periods during my PhD was the month or two leading up to my comprehensive PhD-qualification exams. I spent countless hours preparing a written proposal and presentation, and studying all my old course notes. After the exams, I tried jumping right back into lab work. But each time I’d sit down to do anything that required concentration, I’d find myself staring blankly at my laptop. This went on for many weeks — a period that I’ve heard other graduate students refer to as the ‘post-comps slump’.

In running, it is common knowledge that your legs and muscles get stronger during the recovery period after a hard workout. That’s why it’s so important to eat a nourishing meal soon after a hard run, and it’s also why elite athletes sleep so much. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I keep relentlessly pushing myself, something will eventually give, and an injury or illness will force me to take a break, or even skip a race.

In hindsight, I wish I’d taken a holiday after my comprehensive exams, or at least a long weekend, to give myself a chance to recover, regroup and go back to work refreshed. For me, the mental toll of graduate studies follows the same rules as the physical toll of running, and I’ve found that I perform at my best when I include times of intentional rest and recovery.

Challenge is a cause for celebration

The greatest parallel I’ve found between running and graduate school is the importance of enjoying the process. It is easy to get caught up in the results and feel overwhelmed and bogged down with day-to-day tasks. But it’s important to accept and enjoy the challenge of graduate studies. No matter how difficult it is, each step in this journey is teaching me something, making me stronger and bringing me closer to the finish line.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00013-8

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