Start, Keeping Going – Lessons from Running

I have heard many times that graduate school is a marathon and not a sprint. In fact, in her blog post last week Amy Sheppard said this very thing! I wanted to expand on this idea because for the past year I spend most of my time either running or working on my thesis. I developed an appreciation for running the year I started my first foray into research, the final year of my BSc. When I started graduate school that appreciation and dedication only grew: as I became more disciplined with running, I pushed my limits academically. In the final year of my MSc I ran my first half marathon and made plans to start my PhD. There is an unavoidable parallelism in my life between running and academia.

I like running because it gets me outside (even in the extreme cold I have a strict no treadmill policy), it is dedicated time to spend with close friends, and it is my time to think, process, and discuss with undistracted focus. Running starts my day with a comforting rhythm that is sometimes hard to find in life. But it has also taught me many lessons that I can bring to my experience in academia: to be successful at long-term efforts like grad school and running you have to get in a routine of working towards your goals. But how do you do that when those goals seem so far away? First you start, then you keep going.

I was a little frosty after my run on a typical Manitoba winter morning (-30C) last week but it was still worth it!


It is daunting to start something, whether it’s taking that first step out into the cold morning or writing the first word blank document. Starting comes with the inevitability of challenges and the possibility of failure. When I find myself focusing only on if and when I will finish, I get hung up on how far away that ultimate goal feels. I need to remind myself I have it backwards, I first have to focus on the beginning. The first step to finishing is taking that first step.

The first question I ask myself is: Can I start? Can I start running today? Can I start working on a big analysis or piece of writing? The answer is almost always yes! Conversely, I try not to ask myself: ‘Can I finish…?’ Because that’s not always a guarantee. To remind myself that starting is an accomplishment too, I’ve added the word “start” before the items on my daily to do lists. That way I always accomplish what I’ve written down for that day.

Another way to start is to form a habit. For instance, I know I will go out for a run if I make it the first thing I do in the morning. Similarly, I have daily cycles in my academic productivity; If I’m mindful of that schedule I’m often successful at the tasks I plan.

Keep going

Congratulations on starting! The next question is: Can I keep going?  Can I run 10 more steps up the hill? Can I write one paragraph or figure out what this model looks like? Again, the answer is normally yes! At this point I’m well on my way to accomplishing something.

Sometimes I find myself ready to give up right before the *magic* happens: I’m subconsciously giving myself one final out before I fully commit. Whether I’m pushing past a distance or pushing to finish a big project I’m always proud of what I accomplished by persevering. When I finally do achieve my goals, whether It’s finishing the marathon or submit my thesis, I will look back to those more challenging moments as key points where growth happened. It’s the prior steps that add up to that final goal: progress is happening.

A perpetual feeling of being behind on work manifests when there are no achievable milestones along the way to a goal. If being finished was the only thing that could make me feel ‘caught up’, I would label a lot of what I do as failure. I urge you to focus on any growth, learning, or experience as progress, not only the final product. Some days you just won’t run as far or accomplish as much as you wanted to, and that is OK. You got out there and you tried. Any time you start and keep going when you want to quit, puts further along than you were before.

Here are a few specific things that help me start and keep going when running that can be applied to working on my thesis:

  • Interval training: On days that I really need to get something accomplished I use the Pomodoro (or Tomato Timer) Method. Set a timer (~25 mins) to work uninterrupted on a single task like writing a section of your chapter, cleaning some data, making a figure. When the timer goes off, you get a 5 min break. After 4 cycles you get a longer 30-minute break. I normally aim for 8-12 cycles in a day. I did this while writing my MSc thesis and my Comprehensive Exam Essay and I found it really effective.
  • Peers: My peers motivate me both in running and science: they keep me honest about my habits and help me push my limits. Friend participation is helpful for Pomodoro days because friends keep you accountable to work. You can start a peer support system for work in your own lab: for instance, the WEEL lab holds a biweekly “writing group” in which we submit writing and review other submissions. This habit forces deadlines, provides a supportive working environment, and is a constant stream of feedback.
  • Rest: Important because recovery happens on rest days. Without them, progress would slow with the inevitability of burning out. Self-care is the key to perseverance. Amazing things happen in those intentional pauses – including inspiration! The timer method is a microcosm example of the important role breaks play in your journey of productivity

I am still working on changing my perspective and definition about what success is:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others, instead celebrate your self-improvement. There will always be someone who is a faster runner or a more studious student than you. It is a disservice to you to not reflect on your own progress. It is equally damaging to compare yourself to the unrealistic super-productive person you imagined yourself being when you set your goals at the beginning of the semester or month. So, I also keep a ‘done’ list to remind me about what I have accomplished in times I would normally perceive as unproductive.
  • Focus on small joys like the yellow supermoon against a purple morning sky, the light when the sun hasn’t risen just yet, your footsteps on the quiet trail, the happy dogs on their morning walk, the ravens cheering you on, the time with friends or just yourself! Try to find the joy in working on your thesis, the sharing of ideas with colleagues you admire, helping someone else work out a problem, and making connections strangers when talking about your study species or study system. There is intangible value in your effort separate from what you produce at the end of the day.

Success isn’t a one-time deal, it is a habit and a routine. There is a comforting rhythm to both running and science. I can do both of them regardless of where I am. They are both mixed with surprises and variation – the perfect blend that makes me take that first step every day and keeps me going.

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