Half-baked Thoughts: Academia is like running

Running is like academia. Academia is like running.

In February 2019 I foolishly bragged that “if I had a trainer, I could run a marathon”. This coming from a person with a less than athletic background and life style. Around that time, I had to do a test: how far can you run in one go. The answer was a shocking but eye-opening 750m. 

Why did I do the test? Well, turns out one of the people I made this comment to was a running coach. Ah. Great. Now I have two options. Either I admit I am all talk and live with the shame, or buckle down and start training. So, the next day, I got myself a pair of trainers, and tested how far I could go.

As my training has progressed, I am constantly struck with how similar my hobby and my work are:

  1. Neither is just a job or a leisure time activity – both occupy my time and attention all the time, and they are a defining feature of my identity now (well, sort of, I’ll get back to this later).
  2. Both are hard work. Running does not come easily to me, and I don’t know that it does to many people. I don’t always look forward to my runs and I don’t always want to get my shoes on and head out. Similarly, research and learning don’t come easy to me, and I don’t know that they do to many people. I don’t always feel excited about the things I have to read about, and I don’t always have the concentration to keep reading. 
  3. Both require constant and continuous effort and investment, with the returns of that effort only manifesting much later. Train for months to finally push into a new PB (personal best) on your 5km time? Write and draft and wait for months to see that paper finally appear in print. I would say that both running and academia require patience in terms of seeing successes roll in, but also require you to constantly keep striving for the next goal, the next PB, the next publication. If you stop pushing for the next thing while waiting for the previous thing to come in, soon you run out of things, momentum and progression are lost, and there is a formidable challenge is getting it all rolling again.
  4. There are different approaches to different goals. You can’t sprint a marathon, you can’t constantly churn out top level journal articles. Success is as much about the right technique, the right process, the appropriate plan of attack for the task at hand. 
  5. Progression and improvement happens when you rest. Athletes know that rest is when your muscles repair, and when the true improvement happens. Academics, I think, are mostly bad a resting because at least I spent my academically informative years (my undergraduate studies) in an environment that glorified pulling all-nighters and surviving on 4 hours of sleep (or less). But your brain needs sleep and you do your best thinking with a fresh noggin’. In sleep, things get stored in long-term memory. I am forever telling my students that if they get less than 8hrs of sleep every night, they’re doing it wrong.
  6. If you cut corners with your training, you cut corners with your fitness. If you cut corners with your research, you cut corners with your papers. I tell myself this all the time. Especially when it’s not easy (see point 2 above). But if you take it easy on the run, or if you just skim a paper and don’t really engage with it, what’s the point of doing it at all? Why do we do this? It’s not for the task itself, it’s for the effect completing that task has on us. You do your training session properly, you improve. You engage with your research properly, you improve.
  7. The Imposter Syndrome is real. In 2020, I was promoted to a position of Senior Lecturer. I also started running the distance of a half marathon on a regular basis. I have a working week of 5 days. And I work on academic stuff in the evenings, weekends, days off. Mostly because I want to, because I love what I do, and it’s interesting and exciting and fun. But also because I know it all contributes towards achieving the next goal, even if indirectly. Similarly, I have a running session 5 days per week, and I do other things like bike rides and workouts in evenings, weekends, and on my days off. Because I want to, because it’s fun, because it’s a break, because it’s sunny outside. And, yes, because I know it all contributes towards achieving the next goal, even if indirectly. Slowly, very slowly, over the last couple of years I have moved away form quietly thinking to myself “If I just keep doing this, one day, I’ll be an academic” and actually seeing myself as one. But just last week, as I was nearing the 21st km of my Saturday long run, I caught myself thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if one day I was a runner”. And so I tell my students now, whenever they worry about academia and their studies “If you’re doing research, you’re an academic!”. No matter the distance, or the speed, if you’re running, you’re a runner. No matter the topic, or the rate of publication, if you’re researching and writing, you’re an academic. 

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