10 Ways that Academia Has Made Me a Better Athlete

I’m an academic with a serious time (and money)-consuming hobby – I like to run and bike and swim. I like to obsess about workout schedules and how fast I can bike 25 miles and how that changes depending on hills, road surface, and how my legs – and lungs – feel today. I like to do races, and this summer I have been training for a triathlon*, which means I’ve had a lot of time to think while running and biking and swimming, and what I keep coming back to is this: Academia has made me a better endurance athlete**.

There is a lot written about life lessons from running; and what-I-learned-about-X-from-sports. But my experience is the opposite – I’m not a natural athlete***, I have medical issues I need to constantly deal with in order to work out consistently, and I didn’t train for anything athletic until I was a postdoc. instead of learning about life from running, many of the lessons and strategies that have made me a better, tougher scientist are things that apply equally well to endurance events.

We don’t often think about the skills we learn in academia as applicable to much else (although it does and we should emphasize these transferable skills more), so here is a top 10 list of how academia made me a better athlete.

10. You could be doing more, you could be doing it better. Let it go.
A show of hands here – how many of you have accomplished everything you wanted to do this summer? Anyone? Bueller? Who feels like they should have done more, gotten that one other paper out or analysis done, class prep finished early?
In this job, there is always more you could be doing. Or you could if there were 32 hours in every day and sleep was optional. Training is the same – I should have done more short runs immediately after bike rides, but I didn’t. I should have swum more this summer. But there were other things that needed to be done****, and you know what? I’ll be just fine.

9. Other people are going to have better toys, work more hours…
In academia – and in athletic endeavors – this comes down to money. Just because someone has the best toys, doesn’t mean that they have the best questions.
Similarly, just because someone is on a full-on triathlon bike with disk-wheels and an aero helmet, doesn’t mean they’re all that fast – it just means they enjoy their toys. Which they should —new toys, whether confocal microscopes or bikes— are a lot of fun.

8. So you’re tired. Do it anyway. [The corollary: You’re exhausted/sick – take a day off.]
Some days getting out and running or getting in the pool feels as appealing as writing a grant. Too bad. On the other hand, taking a day or two off when sick or totally exhausted (or sore) is important. A day won’t make any difference in the long term, and you’ll be better, faster, more focused when you come back.

7. Some people are going to think you’re nuts for doing what you’re doing.
How many people asked you why you were doing a PhD? Or a post-doc instead of earning real money in a different job? How many people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about what you do? Or say “Wow! I’m so impressed, I was never any good at science”.  (Or even “You don’t look like a scientist!“)
Responses for athletic endeavors are similar “Wow! I could never swim that far!” or “you?!” or  “You PAID to do that to yourself?”*****

6. Deadlines matter. Schedules and consistency matter more.
I’m a deadline-driven person, but cramming or binge writing are not, it turns out, the most effective writing strategies******. Planning a writing schedule and self-imposed deadlines make me much more efficient. And having someone to keep you accountable helps enormously.
This is the same for training. Schedules matter. I might be more adherent to it as the race gets closer, but you can’t binge-train. It doesn’t work and you get injured. Having someone to train with or even ask whether you did your workout today helps enormously.

5. Getting it done matters more than doing it perfectly.
This has been a lesson that’s hard to learn for me. I have to relearn it for every paper and every grant. If I work on getting it perfect, it will never submit anything. I just need to get it done – Perfection is overrated.
For races this is even more important. I never feel well enough trained, fast enough, strong enough for the event. I worry about letting people down, or not finishing, or just being slower than my last race. I have to learn to let this stuff go. Doing the event matters, if I wait for perfect, I’ll never do anything.

4. Redo/Revise/Resubmit.
Failure is a concept I’m intimately familiar with in science. Experiments fail, grants and papers get rejected, job applications get bounced. None of this means I’m a failure. I’ve learned to take 24hours to wallow, then take a deep breath, assess what went wrong, read the reviewers comments, and go back and redo the experiment or revise and resubmit the paper or grant.
The same thing with workouts – I had an asthma attack in the swim portion of a race I did earlier in the summer (I don’t recommend this); I’ve had horrible, terrible, no good training days where I couldn’t finish the planned workout for no apparent reason. The strategy for overcoming this? Feel the feelings, recover, assess what went wrong, adjust the strategy for next time, and get back out there.

3. Data measurement and analysis
I’m a scientist. I love data, and I have excellent analytical skills. So now I have spreadsheets and graphs of miletage, speed, heart rates, all sorts of things. This (mostly) helps. In day to day training it’s really hard to see consistent improvement. But graphs? Graphs help me see how I’m improving over time. Basically my training is a giant experiment on myself, with all outcomes informative, and analyzed to a slightly obsessive degree.

2. Some men are going to get pissed off or unreasonably competitive when a woman does better than them
It’s not “luck” that I’m in my position. Women don’t “have an easier time on the job market” than men, and my ideas are my own. Likewise, I’m not a “bitch” for passing a guy on a bike; and it’s not “a fluke” that I ran faster than him.
In biking/running/and other individual sports, there’s a term for this – “You just got chicked” – when a man is beaten by a woman at a physical endeavor that he thinks he should be better at. There’s satisfaction in doing better than someone who thinks you can’t do it. And there’s satisfaction knowing that those guys are outliers. Most of the men around me are my collaborators, training buddies, friendly trash-talkers and cheer leaders – even when they got chicked*******.

1. Mental toughness matters as much as anything else
Call it grit, or stubbornness, or good coping skills, mental toughness is what gets you through the tough moments. When your experiments aren’t working and you’re trying to wrap up your dissertation or paper. When you’re exhausted and finishing a grant to submit. Ignoring imposter syndrome and doing it anyway. Mental toughness  is what gets me past the parts in training and races where everything hurts, I start feeling impostery and to the finish line.

* Not an ironman – I’m not that committed
** No, not with cyclopharmacology.
*** Whatever that means
**** Like sitting on the couch. And working on writing papers
***** I have said these things.
****** This is my new mantra
******* Even when they BET MONEY that I couldn’t beat them, and I did.

4 thoughts on “10 Ways that Academia Has Made Me a Better Athlete

  1. Hear hear, from another academic and budding triathlete. About to start training for my 3rd race (Southern Hemisphere summer is coming!). One parallel I’ve noticed is how much better I feel when I stop to take stock and appreciate how far I’ve come – a good counterbalance to your #10 as on a day to day basis it’s so easy to feel ‘behind’, but looking back weeks or months it is much more obvious that I have accomplished something!

  2. Thanks for this post! #6 made me realize that both with running and with writing I sometimes start without a clear goal for that particular day, hoping that I’ll get in the flow and have a nice run or a productive bout of writing. I hope that once I start running I’ll figure out where and how far to run instead of planning it in advance and the same sometimes happens with a day of writing: I hope that just starting will get me into the flow of writing something great. Of course, this approach rarely ever turns into something productive. This post made me realize that in both cases I have to plan more pro-active in order for it to work better.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: side projects > main projects, tuning your scientific bogosity detector, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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