We all know what it is like to push toward and inevitably reach our mental limit. FSR, anyone? Finding that mental limit isn’t fun and often leads to burnout. Much like long hours and frozen meals, this kind of stress is an integral component of being a graduate student. Nature Biotechnology recently reported on the current mental health crisis in graduate education. Evans et al., 2018 reported that approximately 40 percent of Ph.D. students surveyed have moderate to severe anxiety and depression. This was not the first article of its kind, and I was not surprised by the results. So, what can we do about this? How can we avoid burnout and relieve stress? This question plagued my mind before starting grad school.
Once in grad school, I spent some time socializing with my fellow grad students and discovered that there are many of us who enjoy an occasional run, and a few of us who savor those extra long distances! Social media exposed me to other types of endurance athletes, including triathletes and obstacle racers. Then I began to find that many of these athletes from all over the country are involved in the sciences, too. These people are professional sponsored athletes who participate in and win grueling endurance events, and have the same workload we do, so they must have a similar set of stressors. Right? If you want some motivation, here’s a short list of endurance athletes who are current or recently graduated Ph.D. students.
Kaytlyn Gerbin is a competitive ultrarunner who recently obtained her Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Washington. In 2017, Kaytlyn won the grueling 100 mile Cascade Crest ultramarathon in just under 23 hours. She is currently ranked within the top 10 female ultrarunners according to Ultrarunning Magazine.
Rea Kolbl is an ultrarunner and current Ph.D. student at Stanford working in applied physics. Rea ran 90 miles in 23 hours and 47 minutes, earning her a first place finish at the 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder 24-hour endurance event. Beyond simply running, this course had 21 obstacles (think crossfit meets rock climbing), which she had to overcome during each 5 mile lap of the course. She is one tough scientist, indeed.
Wesley Kerr is a recent M.D.-Ph.D. graduate in biomathematics at UCLA who also partakes in running ultramarathon distances. Like Rea, Wesley also competed at the 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder race. Wesley competed in the two person team category and earned a second place finish with 80 miles completed. Wesley is known in the obstacle racing world as “Dr. Red Tights.”
Scott Cooper juggles Ph.D. studies and training for an Ironman Triathlon. A triathlon consists of three disciplines, swimming, cycling and running. Scott is a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. At the 2017 Ironman World Championships Scott finished the 140.6 mile course on the podium in third place in the 25-29 year old age group in nine hours and seven minutes.
Can you imagine doing an intense nine-plus hour workout? These people aren’t just pulling these efforts out of a hat. They dedicate months at a time for individual events. Again, that’s in addition to their studies. With that in mind, can you spare yourself one hour for a workout? If you’re anything like me, you might feel that you can’t. You may feel some anxiety over trying to add another activity into your schedule, or wonder how you’re supposed to exercise when you hardly have time to eat or sleep. Hear me out.
You’ve probably guessed by this point that I’m a runner, too. I started distance running as a hobby the summer before I started grad school. Signing up for races forced me to maintain a training schedule. The sense of discipline I had cultivated in academics positively reinforced my running routine, which in turn came back to positively influence my studies. I found that completing a challenging run or workout was a great way to physically channel my stress. Running provided a sense of accomplishment that sometimes eluded me during longer or more difficult projects. It instilled confidence, and even provided motivation for deadlines. I’m glossing past all the direct physiological health benefits of regular exercise, but I’m enjoying those, too.
Let’s be inspired by people like Kaytlyn Gerbin and Scott Cooper, while remembering that you don’t need to win a race to enjoy athletic success. Any kind of exercise is better than no exercise. Pick a physical activity that makes you smile and put it in your schedule - in any quantity! Strike a balance that allows you to sweat out some of that stress. Take care of your mind and body so you can survive this crazy grad school adventure in one piece.