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Marathons Aren't Madness, They're Mindfulness for Me

Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA

Disclosures

June 23, 2022

I often get asked how I have time for marathon training while doing residency training or why I want to fill my free time with running up to 20 miles at a time. For me, running and racing has been a way to cope with the demands of residency.

Running is like a free hour of therapy for me. Sometimes, my mind is a blank slate, but other times, my racing thoughts seem to calm themselves by the end of a run. I am mainly doing outpatient medicine this year, which I initially thought would be easier, but found that I'd carry my patients' worries home with me. I was constantly thinking and stressing about the suicidal college student or my patient who uses heroin and did not show up for their appointment. I was feeling burnt out and exhausted literally every day!

I knew something had to change if I was going to survive the year.

Finding another focus was helpful with putting work behind me, and that focus became marathon training. Having run the Boston Marathon this past October, I knew the challenges that faced me. The course was grueling, with hills placed toward the end of the race, when you are really getting fatigued from the mileage. I sought advice from more experienced runners of how to best master the hills this time around. Having this other goal to work toward excited me and made the burdens of residency shrink a little bit — or at least diminish during the time I was running.

Running has also been a way to get a little bit of a social life during residency. I often invite my co-residents to run with me or I will make plans after work with someone by inviting them on my run. It is like a healthier "happy hour" for me. Endorphins and chatting while running is the best! No matter how tired I was at the end of the day, I would put on my shoes and get out the door. Just being outside improved my mood and within 10 minutes of a run, the tired and sluggish feeling I had would wear off. I can't say that every single run feels amazing but I can attest to an improvement in mood each time.

One of my attendings gave me the advice to ask my patients about their exercise routines and to share some of my tips. I was hesitant at first to "go off script," but I have begun asking each patient about their exercise habits or if they get outside at all during the day. The answers that I received varied significantly, but it opened the door for communication about lifestyle habits and we developed a better a relationship with each other. Most patients wanted to improve on their exercise habits, and we discuss ways to get outside and be more active. I have had patients tell me that exercise has been a major part of their healing and recovery. I can relate to this and have shared with them that this has also been crucial for my own mental health.

The marathon also gave me an opportunity to take some days off from work to travel to Boston. The atmosphere of the race was amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to run the Boston Marathon again. I was pleasantly surprised to have run my fastest marathon, finishing in 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Don't get me wrong; I put in a lot of miles and pushed myself on my runs to get to that time but I often felt like the demands of residency left me fatigued throughout my training. What marathon training has taught me is that putting in the work yields results. This is a great reminder to me, as I often feel like a hamster on a wheel, wondering when I will reach my end goal.

I hope to continue to compete in marathons and to use my training to unwind, destress, and cope with the demands of the job.

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About Dr Emily Goncalves
Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA, is a psychiatry resident at Delaware Psychiatric Center in New Castle. She is a competitive runner and ran for Syracuse University. She continues to live an active lifestyle and has competed in ten marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Emily hopes to share her passion for running with her patients and is interested in pursuing a career in consultation and liaison psychiatry. She also enjoys writing about her running adventures.

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