When people find out I race Ironman triathlons and compete in other crazy endurance events, like Ragnar or obstacle course races, they often ask: “How do you manage all that training while earning your PhD? Doesn’t it take away from your work?”
Tim Fosbury, a fellow PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, also heard this question a lot leading up to his first marathon. But, as Tim says in Episode 2 of the FitLit podcast: “I was never more productive than the quarter I spent training for the LA Marathon.”
I feel the same way. I have learned to intentionally pair my fitness and professional goals, so the two positively reinforce each other. Here’s why:
Starting your day off with exercise facilitates recall, mental flexibility, and creativity, making you more productive at work later on.
Numerous studies reveal cognitive benefits of just 30 minutes of light aerobic activity (walking, easy jogging/biking/swimming). This movement stimulates the production of a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which nourishes existing neurons and also encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses.
Beginning the day with a healthy dose of movement makes it easier to sit still for long stretches of reading and writing.
Although I advocate using a standing desk for writing projects, I still haven’t cracked the code on being able to stand and read. For really taxing mental work, you just have to sit. And sit for a while. It’s best for your body if you can regularly change positions, but sometimes you just need to hunker down and focus. At least if you’ve already exercised, you’ll be more comfortable remaining sedentary for a longer period of time before the restlessness sets in.
Having a set schedule.
In academia, there is a lot of flexibility when it comes to scheduling. Sure, your lecture and office hours are fixed, but writing projects are normally carried out on the timeline that you set for yourself. There is a lot of necessary creative freedom for when we choose to do our reading, thinking, and writing. However, designing a more rigid schedule (and actually sticking to it!) will inevitably make you more productive, which is why everyone loves Wendy Belcher’s fabulous book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks.
On the flip side, when you sign up for a race, there’s no wiggle room. If you sign up for a 10K on July 20th, then you must be able to run 6.2 miles by July 20th or else you’ve wasted your money. It’s easy to find an appropriate training plan online (see my resources here). Just follow the plan and you will finish your race — that kind of assured success is really nice!
I normally spend a half hour every Sunday afternoon planning my schedule for the week. I consult my training plan and slot in all my exercise sessions on iCal. I also look ahead and see what fixed work commitments I have. Then I take note of all the blank spaces of time. For each one, I create a specific goal (such as, “Write 450 words of Chapter 1” or “Revise first section of Chapter 2”). Just as I stick to my training plan, I stick to my writing plan. When you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re less likely to procrastinate.
“Looking forward” with positive energy.
Even though I can get a little nervous leading up to a race, I’m always so excited for the event, whether it’s big or small. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I naturally tend to look ahead to a “due date” at work with dread. That changed when I started pairing my work deadlines with my race schedule. Instead of thinking, “Ughhh, I have to submit this article by X date,” I now think, “Ok, I’ll submit this article by X date, so then I can head off (guilt-free!) and do Y race and celebrate with margaritas after!” Well, the margaritas are optional. But the shift in mindset — from a negative “I have to do this” to a positive “I get to do this” — makes a big difference in my willingness to start and sustain large amounts of work.
Appreciation for “rest and recovery.”
When I first started graduate school, I worked around the clock every day of the week. I thought this kind of obsessively relentless rigor was necessary in order to keep up with my peers. It was only by learning the principles of exercise physiology that I realized your brain needs downtime, or else it won’t process all the information you’re feeding it. Professional athletes have long understood that recovery is the name of the game. You’ll never be able to nail key workout sessions and set personal records unless your body has had time to repair itself after the strain of previous sessions. Your brain is no different than a hamstring. Olympians don’t exercise 24/7, so I probably don’t have to be reading 24/7, I eventually realized.
But what does it mean to recover? Well, in training there’s a concept called “active recovery,” which means you facilitate repair by engaging in extremely easy movement, such as cycling on a stationary trainer with no resistance or doing gentle yoga. This type of recovery is far more effective than sitting on the couch when it comes to clearing lactate from your muscles. So, I began to wonder, What does “active recovery” for your brain look like? Well, it’s not watching TV. Although this kind of passive entertainment does have its place, there are far more meaningful forms of downtime that can actually help you build brainpower without taxing your system. For me, “active recovery” means writing a FitLit article, drawing a picture for a friend, creative writing, or going for a walk and listening to an educational podcast (like something from BBC’s In Our Time, NPR’s Ted Radio Hour, or a lecture from Great Courses on Audible). Intellectual “active recovery” could also mean going out for coffee or happy hour with some of your colleagues to talk, in a relaxed way, about your ideas and goals. Of course, this should devolve into socializing (that’s the recovery part!), but you’ve snuck in some low-stakes brainstorming. That’s the key in active recovery: you provide enough stimulation to get the gears turning, but not nearly enough to tire yourself out.
While the benefits of racing far outweigh the negatives, it would be dishonest to eschew three potential pitfalls…
Mental fatigue makes you physically tired.
Beware of scheduling key workout sessions at the end of the day, as motivation is low and you’re more prone to injure yourself when fatigued.
Also, don’t expect to produce your best creative/critical work after a taxing workout session. Save your long run for Saturdays (when you shouldn’t be working anyway!). To get around this problem on weekdays, I would write for two hours first thing in the morning with my coffee and light pre-run meal, and meet my word count goal for the day before setting off on my long run. I was always able to teach, conduct office hours, and attend meetings afterwards, but high-quality writing was out of the question after a 15 mile run or above.
Even when you’re not training for a race, checking the fridge is a chronic form of procrastination for many of us who work from home. When your metabolism increases from all that exercise and you find yourself hungry more often, you might be tempted to stop working to walk to a café or make a snack. Avoid this by prepping ahead of time (another Sunday afternoon activity for me): chop up veggies and have fresh fruit and nuts on hand to snack on.
I’ll end with a personal example that I hope comes off as inspirational rather than boastful. Within a one-month span of time I…
- Presented a paper at a major international conference in my field.
- Raced Ironman Coeur d’Alene and took 4th place.
- Climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States.
- Passed the comprehensive exam for my master’s in English.
The preparations for each of these achievements mingled together. I had poise speaking in front of a group of highly respectable scholars, because I felt confident after all my Ironman training. While climbing Whitney, I chatted with my partner about Victorian poetry (a conversation that resurfaced during my exam). When I was tired after six hours on the bike at Ironman, I thought, “Hey, at least that was more pleasant than reading theory for six hours straight.”
In the great words of TS Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Don’t you want to find that edge? I bet it’s farther than you think.