research, Uncategorized

Running and research: a metaphor

One of my favourite running books
One of my favourite running books

The demi-goddess Inger Mewburn over at The Thesis Whisperer recently posted a blog about how ‘thesis prison’ was similar to running: (http://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/02/25/thesis-prison/). Whilst I bow to Inger’s superior knowledge on all matters research-related, it strikes me that she is perhaps too new to running to appreciate some of the more positive aspects which make running distinctly un-prisonlike. So I thought I’d do a quick blog pointing out some of the parallels between running and research from the perspective of someone who has been running for a bit longer.

The majority of my non-PhD time is spent acting as an unpaid, unappreciated slave to my family, aka being a wife and mother. The thing which ticks me off most about this is the complete lack of concrete outcomes. You clean the kitchen, it instantly and magically dirties itself. You buy or make bread, it vanishes within milliseconds. You pick dirty smelly boy socks off the floor, within hours they are replaced by even more dirty smelly boy socks. What attracts me most about running is that your achievements are never undone like this. Once you have a PB (personal best) in a race, it’s yours. Once you have logged that long run in your training log, it’s there in black and white and shows what you accomplished (no matter how slow). Research, too, has some outcomes which are permanent. You publish a paper, nobody can take it away from you (unless of course you committed fraud…) You give a presentation at a conference, there’s a line for your CV which you can look back on with pride. Sometimes, in the entropy of real life, it’s nice to have something tangible to show for your efforts.

Another parallel between running and research is that it can make you a little obsessive. In my case, I’ve taken this one step further by researching running! There’s always one more thing to find out (comparing training plans, for example, or reading just one more paper on your research topic). Both research and running can take up a lot of headspace if you have a deep interest in them. There is also a sense of flow when running or researching – you become immersed in the activity and before you know it you’ve arrived back at your front door with mud on your running shoes, or you look up from your PDFs and realise that you’ve missed school pickup time and your son is waiting for you in the cold. Again. Luckily, running is a really good way to sort out your thoughts about your research, defrag your ideas, and plan a talk or a piece of writing. I cannot tell you how much writing I have done in my head whilst running. Running really does as much for my brain as it does for my body.

This leads me to time management, which is essential for fitting research and writing into a life filled with dirty boy socks. Working out when you think or run best is useful, and blocking out time for both is the only way they’ll get done. Allowing time for recovery is also essential, as is sensible fuelling. Step away from the biscuit tin!

In running, like in research, you start out rubbish and then slowly improve. Both require skills which you need to learn in order to develop into a better researcher or runner (how to write an abstract, how to do an interval session). Both have sets of implicit rules you must acquire knowledge of (academic etiquette, race etiquette). You need to master your tools to best help your performance. You can make do with a normal watch for running (the equivalent of Microsoft Word) or you can use a specifically designed tool like your Garmin running watch which has many more functions available to make life easier and more pleasant (this would be Scrivener for writing http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php). Progress is slow, but if you are consistent about working on your skills, it will pay off eventually with a race time you can proud of, or a piece of data analysis or writing which makes you smile.

In order to get the most out of your research and your running, it’s good to share with others. Racing has an obvious correspondence to conferences. You train hard for both, you socialise with others when there, and you give your best possible performance on the day in the company of many other people. Your writing group or PhD peer group is like your running club or running buddies: people who are there to cheer you on, offer advice and wisdom and empathise when you’re struggling with your training/writing. This support can be from people you know in real life, or it can also be virtual (for Twitter alone, some hashtags which spring to mind are #acwri for academic writing, #phdchat for general PhD well, chat, and #ukrunchat for running). Running, like research, is just much more enjoyable when other people are involved in your journey in some capacity. Yes, ultimately it’s you who has to put one foot or word in front of another, but sharing the highs, lows and everyday vicissitudes with people who ‘get it’ is helpful. God knows, your husband and kids really don’t want to hear about either. And your running or researching buddies can tell you when you’ve done something dumb, like start a race too fast, or used an overly wanky word like vicissitudes.

Most important of all though: during both running and research, you should stop occasionally to appreciate the journey. Goals are important, but you should also try to enjoy the view from time to time 🙂

Photo from Flickr, thanks to Jason Wesley Upton

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3 thoughts on “Running and research: a metaphor

  1. Reblogged this on Jographies and commented:
    A great piece on the parallels between running and research over at Katy Kennedy’s blog – The Affect of Exercise.

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