The Track Through Residency: Is Running Away From Burnout an Option?

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If medical training isn’t a marathon, it’s at least a hotly-contested 5K race.
If medical training isn’t a marathon, it’s at least a hotly-contested 5K race.

Bernard Lagat is a bad dude. He's the American record holder in running for every distance from 1500 to 5000 meters. He has World Championship 6 medals. He's been to the Olympics 5 times, qualifying for his last 5K race by performing one of the most dramatic come-from-behind victories I've ever seen; he was 41 years old at the time. I'll say it again: Bernard Lagat is a bad dude.

Lagat's speed made him a star, but his longevity made him a legend.When he first qualified for the Olympics, Bill Clinton was still in office. Runners can be notoriously secretive — even downright mendacious — when it comes to their training methods, but Lagat's secret sauce is there for everyone to try: hard work (obviously), and lots and lots of rest.

In fact, every autumn between 1999 and his retirement 17 years later, Lagat took 5 full weeks off. Lagat's approach wasn't based on a binder full of double-blind peer-reviewed trials — just on the internal conviction that, for him, “rest is a good thing.” 

Even though his approach might not be explicitly rooted in science, it squares well with what we know about rest and its rewards. 

Not only does constant physical exertion quickly reach the point of diminishing returns, but countless studies have shown that it is during periods of rest that our bodies and minds consolidate, rebuild, and rejuvenate. There's a reason that Lagat, who started achieving world-class results as a teenager, didn't burnout as quickly as his peers — or, really, at all.

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Like competitive running, surgery has a serious problem with burnout. By some measures, 69% of general surgery residents meet the criteria for burnout, and 44% have considered dropping out of their residency programs altogether.1 

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