Why physicians love running marathons

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 11, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Physicians are some of the hardest working, motivated, and disciplined individuals, who often push themselves beyond their limits—it’s no surprise that so many are also endurance runners. 

  • Physicians and endurance runners are hyper-focused on their personal journeys and goals. They can work and run in extreme conditions and often must overcome plateaus.

  • Physicians who are endurance athletes are more successful in counseling their patients on the importance of physical activity.

After leaving bedside medicine, my life became less stressful and more enjoyable, but something was missing: I longed for the mental stimulation, discipline, and physical exhaustion following a harrowing day of taking care of sick patients. 

I’ve been a runner my entire life, but I only started running marathons and ultramarathons once I left my job. I craved a passion that was physically exhausting and required constant rigor and discipline—something that could fill the new gap in my life—and I found it in training for long-distance races.

I know I’m not the only physician who loves training for a race—many of my colleagues shared this hobby, as do many of the fellow physicians I meet while traveling the world. It got me thinking—why are so many physicians endurance junkies? 

Why we're endurance junkies

Long-distance training has set a new standard for what my mind and body can do. I can endure endless miles, horrendous weather, painful blisters, and almost constant discomfort. You learn to “embrace the suck,” one step at a time.

"I believe the amount of time, commitment, and discipline it takes to be an endurance runner or cyclist is akin to what it takes to be a good physician."

Kristen Fuller, MD

The volume of information you must absorb and retain during the early years of medical school is astronomical. I believe the long nights studying, the grueling hours of residency, the physical exhaustion from being on your feet all day, and the stamina required to navigate the mental and emotional trauma that can come with caring for patients parallels training for a marathon.

A study on the psychology of ultramarathoner runners revealed that the most critical factor motivating them to run, to push beyond their limits, was the desire to achieve personal goals.[] 

Sound familiar? It started when we were young: As medical students and young physicians, we were always thinking about where we wanted to practice, what specialty we wanted to pursue, and what we wanted our career trajectory to look like. Answers to these questions are integral to the personal and professional goals we set as physicians. 

We have always pushed ourselves physically and mentally, all in the name of career success and personal fulfillment. We have no choice—it’s just part of what it means to pursue a career as a physician.

"Like ultrarunners, we must demand the most out of ourselves, physically and mentally, to do the job right."

Kristen Fuller, MD

However, it’s not a totally selfless pursuit.

We 'earn' our dopamine

“Earned dopamine” refers to obtaining dopamine through effort—anything that requires time, patience, sacrifice, and energy that cannot be bought or derived from substances. 

Effortful rewards such as career advancement (being a physician) and personal fitness (endurance running) that encourage ongoing learning and personal growth are healthy ways to “earn” dopamine. 

While running a marathon and being a physician are both physically and mentally taxing, they are also very gratifying. There is no other feeling like crossing that “finish line”—whether you’ve logged 26.2 miles or changed a patient's life. 

Here are some other similarities between endurance athletes and physicians:

We hit plateaus or walls

Training for endurance races means, at some point, you’ll hit a plateau. Even when it feels like you’ve given it your all, you’ll have to keep going and dig deep to work through the psychological and physical exhaustion. 

In medicine, we also hit plateaus. We are faced with challenging cases where we need to think “outside the box,” go back to the drawing board, and consult other specialists; we have to push through long surgeries or overnight shifts, and find ways to manage the emotional effects of being faced with death and dying.

"Endurance athletes and physicians are problem solvers; we have no choice but to figure out how to get to the other side."

Kristen Fuller, MD

We’re obsessed with numbers

For runners, numbers are everything—the number of miles and calories consumed, our split times and pace. For physicians, numbers are just as important. Our GPA and class rank in medical school, our board scores, our patient’s lab results, patient satisfaction scores, RVUs—the list goes on. 

As much as we may not realize it, endurance athletes and physicians are always focused on numbers; they are our bottom line.

Being a role model for our patients

At the end of the day, physicians who are active themselves have more of an impact on patients when providing education and feedback on the importance of being physically active.[]

Research has also shown that these physicians feel more confident in having conversations about the importance of physical activity, while having a better understanding of its impact to their patients’ mental well-being.[]

For me, the transition from bedside medicine to long-distance running has provided not only a source of physical challenge and mental stimulation but also a profound sense of fulfillment. In practicing physicians, the shared mindset fosters problem-solving abilities, resilience in the face of challenges, and a deep understanding of the value of discipline and sacrifice. 

Ultimately, the joy derived from both crossing the finish line of a marathon and positively impacting patients' lives underscores the profound connections between endurance athletes and those who become physicians.

What this means for you

Being a physician and an endurance runner takes enormous dedication, sacrifice, and hard work—no wonder there are so many of us. Runners and doctors, in general, have thick skins, high mental stamina, and thrive in challenging environments. Whether we are a runner or not, we should take pride in ourselves for being so disciplined and motivated. Keep on keeping on, one foot in front of the other. 

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