How a full-time job can help top runners

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Just hours after winning the 2022 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in DC on April 3, Susanna Sullivan returned to her home in the suburbs, opened up Zoom, and prepared for an afternoon of virtual tutoring. The non-sponsored elite runner had just won the biggest race of her career and earned $14,500, but her life and routine as an elementary school teacher and math teacher in a Northern Virginia high school went on.

“I had a foot in both worlds that day,” said Sullivan, 32, of running and teaching.

Most national-level runners are full-time professionals, meaning they are sponsored and paid to run. But there are several successful top runners who have chosen full-time jobs outside of running, and they may have something to teach runners of all skill levels about how sport-life balance can improve performance.

Carrie Verdon, 28, who placed second in the women’s division at this year’s Cherry Blossom race, is also an elementary school teacher. Sarah Sellers, 30, finished second in the 2018 Boston Marathon while working as an anesthetist. Reebok-sponsored marathoner Martin Hehir, 29, is running career bests while juggling his duties as a resident anesthesiologist. And earlier this year, 37-year-old Keira D’Amato broke the American women’s marathon record at the Houston Marathon there. D’Amato, a Nike-sponsored runner and mother of two, works as an associate broker and realtor in Virginia.

For these elite runners, running often becomes more of an escape than an all-consuming career. And that, they believe, can lead to greater success. “I think because everything outside of running is just kind of non-stop, running is actually … an outlet,” Sullivan said. “I think having so many things at once has made me very, very good at dividing myself up. And I think that’s what you have to do to race effectively.”

Sport psychologists and researchers in the field have emphasized the importance of athletes prioritizing their mental health and finding an identity beyond sport. “A happier, healthier person will be a happier, healthier athlete,” said Kristin Keim, clinical sports psychologist. “So you’re going to do better, whatever that is better.”

Keim is a former ballet dancer and cyclist who has worked with a range of athletes, including collegiate and professional runners. She prefers the term “energy management” to “time management” or “balanced living”.

“Energy management can be another way to be present and practice mindfulness,” she said. “This is important for athletes and really everyone, no matter what you do every day. There is enough time each day to set daily intentions.”

Keim believes that athletes can experience an increase in performance if they allow themselves to be rounder. “If running is your self-care, that’s great,” she said. “If running is your pro job, they really shouldn’t look that different because you should enjoy it. It’s just a different context.”

Anna-Maria Broomes, a PhD student in organizational behavior at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, who has researched the balance between sport and personal life, believes it promotes performance. “And it’s not just performance in sport, but sport-life balance creates value in a person that goes beyond sport. So we think work-life balance is important in terms of emotional well-being and strong social ties.”

Broomes also stressed the importance of support networks that allow athletes to “make the best of both worlds”. It’s important for athletes and coaches to remember that athletes are more than athletes, she said. “They are holistic beings who want to excel and thrive, but to do that they need the support of loved ones and professionals standing in their corner.”

The DC-based Georgetown Running Club’s 60 or so sub-elite runners are all full-time students or have jobs outside of their running careers. Head Coach Jerry Alexander plans the team’s Wednesday night and Saturday morning workouts with that in mind, and he maintains that a career outside of running benefits athletes.

“If running is your job, if something goes wrong — you get a little hamstring problem or something — it’s like the end of the world,” said Alexander, who has coached several U.S. Olympic marathon qualifiers. “And when you have a balance in life, I think it lets people walk better.”

Sullivan believes that without an all-consuming focus, she can get better at everything she does. “I’m a teacher and a runner,” she said. “It kind of helps me feel happy at the end of the day when I feel like I’ve lived a day that maximized my potential as a teacher and runner.”

A typical day of the school year looks like this: Sullivan gets up around 6 a.m. and runs a seven or eight mile run. She will often include strength training before or after and then work as a fifth grade teacher at Haycock Elementary School from 8:30 am to about 5:00 pm. She then teaches for about two hours before running three or four miles and spending 45 minutes swimming at a local pool. Sullivan gets home around 9 p.m

Integrating all of this takes a lot of planning and prep work. “If it didn’t happen over the weekend, it probably won’t happen during the week,” Sullivan said of meal planning.

But jogging with running and teaching also means she can’t always stick to her schedule, something Sullivan learns isn’t always a bad thing. “I gain perspective that it doesn’t have to be perfect to push the needle in the right direction,” she said.

For D’Amato, working full-time in real estate has allowed her to have a lucrative career outside of running, and she has kept it as her pastime. “I was able to take risks that didn’t involve financial gain and running,” she said. “I wasn’t after paychecks. I was chasing my best times and doing whatever would make me the fastest runner.”

Hehir, who works for the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and whose wife is expecting their third child in August, spent a year out of college exclusively running professionally. Looking back, he believes being a full-time runner was more difficult than juggling running and a full-time job outside of sport. “There was a lot of downtime, a lot of thinking, and I think there’s a lot of opportunities to just overthink and get too caught up in running,” he said.

He now sees running as “the perfect way to just distract yourself from work [and] Reduce stress.” That keeps him balanced. Working full-time has made him a happier – and better – runner. “I can say that I do it because I love it and it’s fun, not because I have to and it’s my job,” Hehir said.

Kelyn Soong is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Find him on Twitter: @KelynSoong.

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