Lifestyle12 May 2021

The Athletic Life: how running helps nurses cope with the demands of their job


Running nurses (© Christel Saneh)

Kate CarterDoes nursing make a great runner, or does running turn out to require the same skill set as nursing? It's a chicken-and-egg type scenario that has been made more apparent over the past year.

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


For many of us in the past year, running has become less the pursuit of fitness, and more a coping mechanism.

Whether it’s a tiny precious window of time out of the house to get fresh air and a change of scene, or an escape from the grind of a job that’s changed beyond all recognition, running has made the load a little bit lighter for people all over the world. Nice work, running.

But that load has surely been heaviest for those who have spent the past year on the frontline of healthcare. After all, who needs an escape more than someone whose entire life is spent in the thick of the pandemic?

Today is International Nurses Day – and I really hope that when the past year or so has receded to a more gentle sepia tone in our memories, we will still remember and be grateful to all the nurses, indeed all the frontline workers who, instead of staying safe at home, ran towards the fire.

Thinking about it, it struck me that among the runners I know and admire most, a surprising number of them are nurses. Is that just pure coincidence? Or if not, is it chicken-or-egg: does nursing make a great runner, or does running turn out to require the same skill set as nursing?

European marathon champion Koen Naert worked as a nurse until a few years ago, and last year he wrote about using running to cope after dealing with the aftermath of the terrible 2006 Brussels bombings: “I remember coming home late at night and telling my wife stories about the day and saying, ‘I can’t stay inside, I have to run to ease my mind’…”

I cannot imagine what he saw, and had to deal with, but I think every runner who has even just had a really bad day knows the power of the run to provide that ease. But also occurs to me – though I don’t pretend it’s anything other than purely anecdotal – that all the nurse athletes I know are marathon runners or even ultra-runners. Does doing a job so pressured and so physically and mentally exhausting simply require a very large amount of stress relief? Of course I’m sure there are sprinting nurses or doctors who can, and will, disprove my theory, but perhaps it’s only endurance running – or training for it – that can really work the magic required; that slow process of unwinding stiff legs into a steady rhythm, letting the miles slowly, safely, disperse the pressure that’s built up. If sprinting is about unleashing the adrenaline, perhaps the grind of the long miles is about dispersing it, like a slow release safety valve?

Far better than expounding on my own theories, though, is to ask an actual nurse runner. Tracy Barlow represented Great Britain in the marathon at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 European Championships. She’s also a nurse – and a friend.

“I have often thought about it,” she says, “and there are huge similarities for me. The job itself challenges you in different ways. Each shift can sometimes push you to the edge of your coping abilities. The high intensity of working in critical care gives you an adrenaline boost – and the high pace of things keeps you on your feet for the whole of your shift. You have to think on your feet constantly and consider everyone else around you. The fact that people's health and sometimes life is in your hands is really tough.”

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Interestingly, she thinks that perhaps there is indeed a personality type that is drawn to both nursing, and to marathons: “I think we do it [nursing] because we like the challenge – along with wanting to help others. And the marathon presents very similar challenges. Some sessions can push you to the edge. The marathon gives me the biggest challenge and when I can overcome it, it’s the biggest reward you can have. Helping others in nursing does the same.  And yes we probably do walk a marathon each shift, too!”

Cat Simpson is another runner and friend, and someone whose training on Strava usually makes my jaw drop in disbelief. She competed at the IAU World 24 Hours Championships and does races so long I’d consider them a bit far in a car. She’s also an ICU nurse. 

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A post shared by Cat (@cat_simpson)

Cat has always used running as a form of stress relief and for the whole of the pandemic has been run-commuting to work – but even though she kept running, she did find her attitude changing. As she told RunUltra’s Kate Allen: “I think it would be accurate to say I experienced something not far from an existential crisis during the Covid peaks where we were inundated with sick patients at work, I wasn’t sleeping, and actually training seriously felt selfish and futile. Running has always provided headspace and time to reflect on life and work for me, but putting in any specific sessions felt pointless and I was too knackered, so I just went with the flow and dialled things back.”

I can’t be alone in thinking that of all the adjectives to apply to an ICU nurse after the past year, ‘selfish’ wouldn’t be on the list. Hell, it wouldn't even be in the dictionary. I can only imagine the shift in perspective that Cat's experiences bought, but I’m very glad that, as with so many of us, keeping on running has brought her that headspace. May it always do so.

A joint thanks today, then: to running for keeping us sane, but most of all to nurses, for everything they do.