Taking lessons from trail running into the clinic and beyond

Helen Wilkie, trail runner

This May, in the midst of lockdown, I encouraged my friends at County Vets in Ayrshire to take part in an exercise challenge to motivate us and get active – doing something together as a team and raising money for Vetlife.

We set a team target of 1000 km and each took part doing activities we enjoyed – walking, running, cycling or riding. The challenge motivated some of us to push ourselves and cover longer distances than we normally would. For others, the challenge was an opportunity to try a new activity or incorporate exercise into their weekly routine for the first time.

We far exceeded our own expectations and with each other’s support we covered over 1700 km during the month! More importantly, the challenge gave us something to work on together again. Covid-19 had split our team into two separate groups and some members were on furlough. The 1000 km challenge gave our team morale a boost that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated. Three months later, many of us have kept up our new exercise habits.

I wanted to share our experiences with the rest of the veterinary community, and also scale up our challenge and run it in aid of Vetlife.

This idea became the ‘Vet Month of Movement’, which takes place in October. Anyone in the veterinary industry can get involved.

All you need to do is create a team, of any size, with friends or colleagues, set a goal that will encourage you to take part in exercise regularly throughout the month, support each other to be more active and collect sponsorship for Vetlife.

My team at County Vets will be taking on 100 challenges, from exercising every day for a fortnight to going for a day’s hillwalking.

'As a profession, our mental health is not something we tend to talk about'

Exercise benefits both our physical and mental health. As a profession, I feel that mental wellbeing is something we tend not to talk about. I hope the event will strengthen teams across the country, allow individuals to discover a way to improve their own mental wellbeing and open up the conversation around mental health at a practice level.

Transferable skills

I love how my role as a mixed vet means no two days are the same. I get to be the first point of care for so many animals as they are brought into the world and as they grow old, and work with people from all walks of life.

There is always something else to do or learn. It’s easy to become carried away and regularly stay at work late or spend the weekend reading up on cases, but I also know how important it is for me to focus on something else and keep the vet part of my identity in perspective.

Last October I rekindled my love of running and started puffing my way around a 5 km route a few times a week. A month or so later, after listening to a podcast by ultrarunner and vet Jasmin Paris, talking about winning the Spine Race (260 miles along the Pennine Way) in January 2019, I signed up for a winter trail half-marathon in February.

It was a decent goal to work towards and kept me motivated to stick with the many cold wet runs I had to complete by head torch. By spring I was stronger and fitter and able to take on bigger running challenges.

Trail running teaches me things I can also apply to my veterinary role...

1. Patience

Fitness is not achieved overnight and neither are amazing surgical skills. Becoming better at something, whether that be running further or carrying out more complicated procedures at work takes time and consistency, setting goals and working towards them each day. Not every day goes to plan, not every run feels good, but by working hard and always taking the next step, the improvements I’m aiming for are coming.

2. Mindfulness

To be truly in the moment is something I struggle to do if I am sitting down. However, when I am on a run I naturally think through everything I am holding in my mind and put it away. I soon find myself with a clearer, tidier headspace with room to think about new ideas or nothing at all. Moving my body helps to still my mind and that is what I love most about running.

I now try to do this at work as well so I can concentrate fully on what I am doing. Worries take up a lot of energy and thought space, and I often find mine, although sometimes all consuming, tend to be irrational. It’s really useful being able to shrink them down, pack them away and go through them later when I’m not required to focus on my work.

3. Resilience

The ability to adapt in a time of adversity is key to being resilient. Running in itself is simple; you just need to put one foot in front of the other. But then as you add other factors such as poor weather, uneven ground, steep inclines and body fatigue, it becomes much harder.

I’ve needed to learn how far I can push myself, to break my route down into segments that I can manage mentally, to fuel properly and work through any setbacks by reminding myself that ultimately I’ve chosen to be out here – and remember that the view from the top usually makes the struggle worthwhile!

4. Self-belief

Running has proved to me over and over again that if I set a goal, make a training plan and stick to it as best I can, I am able to achieve what I set out to do.

Active vet movement

In such a compassionate profession, it saddens me that so many of us are struggling – 36.6 per cent of vets have symptoms of burnout (‘Resilience to burnout in UK vets’ by Donna Rodil, RAW Mental Health). Exercise has certainly helped me through a few tricky times and massively improves my work-life balance. Other people’s adventures and sporting achievements have widened my horizon and inspired me to try new challenges.

'If I set a goal, make a training plan and stick to it, I am able to achieve what I set out to do'

In conjunction with the Vet Month of Movement I’ve created the Active Vet Movement, an initiative to pull together stories and experiences from members of the veterinary community, to help inspire and encourage us all to explore our identity past our job title and discover the benefits exercise can have on our mental wellbeing.

If you’re planning to take part or would like to collaborate in any way I’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch through the website or on social media. You can find more information at www.activevetmovement.co.uk or @activevetmovement on Instagram and Facebook.

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