Approaching Running While Studying for the Bar Exam
As a former Division I cross-country and track athlete, running has always been a huge priority in my life and daily routine. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I trained daily as part of my “job” as a member of the track team. As my focus shifted into law school, running continued to serve as a source of exercise-induced therapy and a reminder of who I was outside of law school. In this article, I discuss how you can approach running while studying for the bar exam.
Setting aside the time, each day, to move my body and breathe fresh air kept me sane while navigating the rigors of law school. Then came the bar exam. Hours upon hours of studying, holed up for days on end. Since I graduated a semester early from law school, I took the Illinois Bar Exam in February. Long, dark, winter days coupled with what felt like never-ending bar preparation crept close to taking a toll on my mental health. I quickly realized that even during the relatively short crunch of bar preparations, staying active and keeping up with my running was vital to my happiness and wellness.
A few years later, my life looks very different in some ways, and much the same in others. Now, my days are filled with work as a full-time attorney, adjunct professor of legal studies, and mom of two toddlers. Some might think running takes a back seat to the many hats I wear – but on the contrary, running takes an even higher priority in my life. Despite my heavy workload, I prioritize running and training each and every day.
I am often asked: “How do you do it all?” I am here to break it down. How can you be successful on the bar exam and still prioritize exercise or training for a big event.
Approaching Running While Studying for the Bar Exam
Find your priorities.
From the outset, it is vital to set your priorities. Before embarking on a training plan, especially a marathon training plan, I ask myself: What are the three things that matter the most to me? In my own life, my top priorities are: 1. My family. 2. My work. 3. Running. It may seem silly that I value running over other aspects of my life, but when I sit down to really evaluate my priorities, that is where they fall. For students studying for the bar exam, your priorities may look slightly different. 1. Family. 2. Passing the bar exam. 3. Training for your half marathon (or other race).
Prioritizing running helped me stay in the right headspace for the bar exam. Running provides me with both a physical stress outlet, as well as an opportunity to reset my mind and offer it a much need break. In many ways, running is critical to my mental health – especially during a very stressful time like studying for the bar exam! Taking the time to accomplish running training each day was vital to my physical and mental wellness during bar prep. Keeping running as a top priority during exam preparations kept me healthier – both physically and mentally.
It is important to remember, however, that in setting forth those most important values in my life, inherently there are some things that fall by the wayside. Perhaps over this set time of studying for the bar and training for a race, time spent in the evenings with friends will have to be limited. Similarly, if running and training are high on the priority list, other pleasures such as concerts and travel may need to take a back seat until after the bar exam when the priorities list may shift – hopefully taking studying for the bar off the list entirely!
In order to make sure that my top three priorities can harmoniously coexist, I know that I must make myself a relatively rigid schedule. We already know that studying for the bar exam is a full-time job. And those of us who run marathons know that marathoning is no easy feat, either! However, you can successfully tackle both at the same time with some planning and mindfulness. This requires setting a schedule.
Let’s start with the running. When I train for a big race, especially a marathon, I map my training out for 12-16 weeks. This is relatively standard, but it can still feel daunting to lay out weeks and months of work in one fell swoop. I also generate a “weekly schedule” for myself – speed work on Mondays, long run early on Friday mornings. I always take Saturday “off” completely from running in order to make time for Priority #1 – my family.
Setting this running schedule offers me structure in what each day looks like when it comes to my training. I know what kind of workout to expect each day and approximately how much time that run will take. Even if you are training for a 5K or just running for enjoyment, you can still create a “weekly schedule” that incorporates running so you can make it a priority as you study.
Similarly, schedule your study time. What topics will you cover each day? How will that break down into outlining, reviewing, essay practice, multiple-choice practice? Map out your “game plan” for your study objectives, as well.
The tricky part is how to combine a training schedule with a busy bar exam study schedule. At the end of the day, this comes down to how you best operate. Some athletes love to wake up first thing, lace up their shoes, and get out the door to run. If you can manage this each day, go for it! For someone that works full time, is studying for the bar exam, and training for a race (you rock!), then those early morning runs or late evening runs are likely all that you can manage time-wise in your busy schedule.
For those just coming out of law school and not yet working full time, taking a mid-day break may be key. When I studied for the bar exam, I preferred to give myself a mid-day run break in order to reset my mind and body. Taking those small breaks is critical to success! You can only retain so much in each sitting. I could refocus my mind and body on a goal wholly unrelated to the law or the bar exam – taking that mental break from it all helped me immensely.
Today, the key to successfully managing a high-mileage running schedule with a busy study schedule boils down to time management. I am a fan of time-blocking, wherein I know that I intend to focus on for each hour of the day. While it may seem strict, this method works best for me. Create a schedule each week, when to wake up, when to watch lectures, when to practice essays, etc. But also schedule your running and training time. Arguably most importantly, schedule breaks for yourself in order to meet your own basic needs (you have to eat!). Scheduling breaks and down time is critical to maintaining a sustainable schedule.
Take care of yourself.
During bar prep, students often fail to get enough sleep, rely on junk food, and keep themselves holed up for days on end. Similarly, when training for marathons, it is easy to not get enough sleep, rely on processed food, and struggle to give your body the care it needs. After all, marathon training makes one very hungry! In order to successfully navigate either the bar exam or training – let alone both at once! – you must take care of yourself.
Ensure you are offering your body enough rest through good, deep sleep. Fill your body with whole, nutritious foods. Utilize a food service or grocery delivery if necessary to ensure you are fueling your mind and body properly. Take a little bit of time each evening to stretch or meditate in order to reset your mind and body.
Know when to stop.
As runners, we can often overtrain. We get too aggressive way too quickly. This might mean that you start off your run way too fast or run for too long. Similarly, when studying for the bar exam, you can overtrain, too! Scheduling time off and breaks is vital to your success both on the bar exam and in your running. After all, your brain needs time to recover as well.
As a general rule, I take Saturdays completely off running in order to give my body a day of rest and recovery. When I assist students in their bar exam preparations, I offer similar advice – give yourself a day off! You cannot expect to go hard seven days a week, ten hours a day. It is simply not sustainable. You would not run seven days a week for ten hours per day, right? Your body needs a break! Stay diligent with your schedule and your time in order to offer yourself a much deserved rest each week, both from running and from studying.
I also recommend knowing when to stop each day. By utilizing a schedule for yourself, include the time to wrap it up for the day and turn your brain off! It is completely permissible – and even encouraged – to offer yourself time in the evening to binge watch Netflix and take a break from the law.
Ask for help.
Studying for the bar exam is hard. So is training for a race, regardless of the distance! When in doubt, ask for help. If you feel yourself struggling with your studying, take a step back and evaluate where you feel you need assistance. Rather than spinning your wheels, reach out for the help that you need. That might look like a bar-specific course, a private tutor, or additional study aids. (JD Advising is here to help you!)
Similarly, with running, you can ask for help while training. Rather than struggle over workouts and mileage plans, utilize an online training plan, or work one-on-one with a running coach to help you meet your goals. Using these resources is a great way to ensure you are following a running plan designed with your goals in mind. Moreover, working with a running coach can be key to helping you stay on track with your training and daily scheduling.
Set your goals.
Studying for the bar exam is daunting and stressful. There is just no way around it. Clearly, you have a big, scary goal of passing the bar exam in order to become a licensed attorney.
As runners, we also set big scary goals. Whether it is to simply complete a 5K or run a Boston Marathon qualifying time, I am a firm believer that setting goals for yourself outside of the bar exam (and work in general) is key to maintain solid mental health. As much as the bar exam feels all encompassing at this very moment, there is life outside of the law and life outside of the bar exam. Setting a goal outside of the profession will serve you well in your own confidence and mental health. And meeting that goal always feel so rewarding at the finish line!
Just like a big race, the day will come for you to show up and crush the bar exam. Race-day and bar exam day are similar in so many ways. Make sure you properly hydrate and fuel ahead of the big day. Get a good night of sleep. Do not cram the night before. Go into the exam with confidence in your training, the mantras to get you through the “big race” of test-day, and a positive mindset. Whether it is a crowd cheering you on at the finish line of 26.2 or your family awaiting your return home from the exam, remember that you have a group of supporters cheering you to the finish line. You’ve got this!
Julia Kaye Wykoff is an attorney in Illinois. Julia works for JD Advising as the Associate Director of Pre-Law Services. She serves as a law clerk in the Fifth District Appellate Court and teaches in the Legal Studies Department as adjunct faculty at the University of Illinois-Springfield. Julia is a mom of two toddlers and a Boston qualifying marathon runner.
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