The life of a researcher can be a solitary, sedentary existence – especially given the global events of the past few months. In this blog post, Seth Armstrong Twigg, an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher, discusses how exercise – and most notably running – has played a vital role during his PhD.
Even before the pandemic began, prominent studies reported a worrying rise in cases of anxiety and depression in PhD researchers, which has inevitably increased in 2020. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this complex issue, and this blog post only comments on my own personal experience.
I’m now approaching the finish line of my three-year PhD marathon, although at times it’s felt more like an ultra-marathon. There have been highs and lows, accompanied by periods of good progress and the inevitable writer’s block. However, one thing has made the difficult times more bearable – running.
But, if you’ve never managed to run on a regular basis, the thought of starting out can be a bit daunting. In this post, I’ll answer some basic running questions and hopefully show how you can boost your research with running.
Running builds your muscles, improves your cardiovascular system, and can reduce your risk of long-term illness. The benefits of running for mental health are well documented too – and speaking personally, I feel more relaxed, optimistic and ready to start a day of research after a good run.
As a literature researcher, most of my work can be done at home, so heading out for a run and seeing the outside world gives me a lift. A smile with a dog walker or a subtle wave to another runner reassures me that I’m not a complete hermit.
Running with a research colleague is also a great way to socialise, and on top of that, there are lots of running clubs in most university towns and cities, so you can actually improve your social life whilst becoming healthy.
Time and distance?
I usually run in the morning, as it works best for me, but there’s no optimum time. Perhaps 10pm might not be the best idea, but if you’re a night owl, maybe it’ll set you up for a nocturnal research binge?
I don’t run every day, and if I haven’t slept well, I’ll give it a miss. But even if I’ve got a deadline approaching, I’ll still go out as it definitely makes me work better. I also love to run in the morning before presenting at a conference – it really takes the edge off those awkward post-paper questions.
Depending on energy levels, I usually like to run 5K or 10K distances. I ran a half marathon during lockdown, but despite my best intentions, I haven’t repeated the feat since.
All the gear, no idea
As a beginner, it’s easy to get bogged down by all the products that the multi-billion-pound fitness industry deem essential. But if you’ve got a pair of trainers and some relaxed clothing, you can start building up your fitness levels without the need for any expensive equipment.
Although I will add that I’ve spent quite a bit of money on some new, extremely comfortable shorts recently – for the good of my PhD, of course.
The first run
Start small first – pop out for a light jog around the block or in the local park, and then build it up from there.
It’s easy to run like the wind on your first outing and tire yourself out so much that you’ll never want to go again. If you can aim to do a minute without stopping, that’s a good start. There are some great apps to set you off, like the NHS’s very own, Couch to 5K.
To tech or not to tech?
As researchers, we generally like data – and analysing it. So, if that’s your bag, then the fitness tracker, Strava, might be a good option for you. Of course, as with most things the app has its downfalls (you only need to look on Twitter to discover why), but on the whole, it works for me.
I only follow close friends and find that mostly, I’m comparing my runs to previous efforts and in that way, seeing the progress is a motivation. Plus, having these weekly challenges aside from my PhD provides a great source of distraction.
That said, fitness tracker apps usually mean that your phone becomes your running buddy, which might not suit everyone. However, smart watches have become very reasonably priced in recent years – which then sync to tracker apps – so you can ditch the phone and run free!
Music is a personal choice – I’ve listened to songs and podcasts whilst running, but at the moment, I’m just enjoying hearing the noises of the city on my runs. It really depends on how you view your running – as a moment of escape from the demands of research or an opportunity to catch up on your favourite podcast.
The finish line…
Running isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but over the last few years, it’s definitely kept me on track (sorry), and made me more hopeful that the mammoth task of completing a thesis is actually achievable.
So, if you feel that research is getting the better of you, why not give running a go – you might actually enjoy it.
Seth Armstrong Twigg is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher, based at Cardiff University and co-supervised by Bath Spa University. His research examines the relationship between Welsh literature and the environment. He is a very average runner. You can also follow Seth on Twitter @SethTwigg