How College Students Can Perform Better By Scaling Back

tired student girl with glasses sleeping on the books in the library
tired student girl with glasses sleeping on the books in the library

This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.

This past August, I rummaged through a box of childhood keepsakes to find a crumpled envelope containing a letter I had written in sixth grade to my future self. In copious detail, I had described my friends, hobbies and goals I hoped to achieve by high school graduation. I was amused to discover my interests had scarcely changed; organically, I had checked many aspirations off the list. Last on this list was scribbled, "I hope you run a half marathon." I paused. This was a task I had not attempted. I liked to run but had always played sports that required a different skill set. Long distance could be a new challenge. I looked up training programs online and investigated which races would take place near Duke in the fall.

It began as a vague, lofty goal rather than a concrete commitment. Back at school, I found time to slip a few miles in each day, gradually building up my stamina. These scheduled runs became something I looked forward to as Duke life sped up, growing busier and increasingly taxing. I set out alone, blasted my music and left the world behind. As my footsteps hit the pavement, it took awhile to let my mind unravel. I was no longer well versed in the ability to intentionally lose focus and relax; by sophomore year, I felt like a machine programmed for efficiency. As the pace of my heart rate increased, the pace of my brain slowed down. Those were the moments when I felt present and engulfed in one task. I cherished them more and more.

At first, my feet dictated my pace. I sought to avoid goal setting because I didn't want my enjoyment of this independent pursuit to become comparative or contingent on performing well. I experience enough assessment each day; in this space, I tried to turn it off. I want to enjoy things I love for the process and not just the outcome, but I fear forgetting how to do so. At times, sticking to this mindset was difficult. The stronger I became, the more I began to develop expectations for myself. Deliberately pushing them aside felt strange.

Three weeks before the race, my ankle and shins started to give out on me. The doctor advised ignoring my last planned long runs and resting in order to let the tendonitis subside in time for the half marathon. Inactivity made me antsy and idle. Breaking from the schedule in the final stretch felt unsettling, especially because long distance runners must taper during the last week of training, which involves dramatically decreasing activity to be in peak condition on race day. This meant my longest run would be a month before the actual race day and I feared being unprepared.

"To deliberately pull back and do less - and to remain certain this won't detract from a strong performance - feels backwards, foreign to the way we college students are programmed to operate. "

I sought the advice of a family friend who was an experienced marathon runner. He told me that at this point, my training was finished. In an endurance sport, the mind is the true athlete. Being ready to cross the finish line would depend on remaining confident in my self-efficacy rather than further improving physical fitness. Tapering presents a counterintuitive mental challenge because it involves directly rejecting the method of preparation drilled into us as students, athletes, and ambitious individuals in today's pressure-driven, outcome-oriented world. We want to train as hard as possible right up to the big game, sprint when the whistle blows and study incessantly through the final minutes until the exam. To deliberately pull back and do less - and to remain certain this won't detract from a strong performance - feels backwards, foreign to the way we college students are programmed to operate.

Students at Duke and other universities move at a constant sprint. Unless I dedicate all of my time and mental energy to preparation leading up to an exam, I often feel as though I have not tried hard enough. This manic over-preparation can drive me into an anxious state where I cannot trust my knowledge or competence until the test is over and I cannot expect myself to do more. Once I think I can accomplish something, I expect the best performance of which I am capable in every class, club or sport - with little forgiveness if I fall short of the bar I set. However, transitioning from this all-or-nothing mindset is critical to sustainable physical and mental health. Such attitudes contribute to the rates of anxiety and depression spiraling at elite institutions all over the country. Employing restraint becomes associated with laziness, when in fact it is needed for health, wellness and performance.

When the gunshot cracked on race day, I resisted the urge to set out fast despite how energized I felt. As others passed, my competitive urge kicked in but I reminded myself slow and steady would win the day. I forced myself to stay at a consistent pace. Seven miles in, I realized if I hustled, I had a chance at breaking two hours. Then, I allowed myself to push; I sped up with each remaining mile, finishing with seconds to spare under two hours. I could utilize this reserved energy only because I had initially restrained every impulse that shouted at me to go faster. Ironically, consistency and discipline allowed me to accelerate at the end.

"Employing restraint becomes associated with laziness, when in fact it is needed for health, wellness and performance."

When a doctor told me to rest, I stopped running. When a respected adult told me I would be ready to finish, eventually I believed him. When every running article emphasized not setting out too fast at the beginning of a race, I acquiesced. In these situations, I could justify holding back although doing so felt uncomfortable and frustrating. It takes someone outside of my world - my mind, my friends and my Duke bubble - to remind me to slow down. I was forced to approach preparation in a different way and only listened because I physically needed to - but it worked. I question what such a cultural shift would look like if it occurred across college campuses nationally.

Most of the time, our lives as college students lack this type of external monitor. In the Duke bubble, no one tells us how to slow down. Analyzing our own lives is a critical first step for developing an aptitude for endurance rather than instant gratification. How do we force ourselves to scale back if we have not broken yet - and more importantly, learn to become comfortable doing so? Who, and what, sets these boundaries? And what will the penalty be if our community of students continue to think they are invincible and exert 100% of their energy with no restrictions?

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.