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Emma Davitt: Marathoning Through Shift Work

When NICU nurse Emma Davitt isn't at the hospital, you'll probably find her running. In this interview, Emma talks about the challenges of balancing shift work with marathon training.

Emma Davitt is a NICU nurse based in Seattle. When she’s not caring for her tiny patients, you’ll find her training and running marathons with her fiancé. In this article, Emma talks about the challenges of balancing a challenging sleep schedule while pushing for her personal best.

—As told to Lauren McGill. Edited for clarity and conciseness.

 

Can you describe your job? What does a typical shift look like?

I am a nurse at a level IV neonatal ICU, so I work with some of the smallest and most premature babies. For the last two years, I’ve worked straight night shifts. For 12 hours, it’s my responsibility to keep unstable babies progressing. Typically, my patients are very sick, so I’m on my feet and on task for the entire shift. Other times, I have relatively stable patients and I get to sit and chart.

 

Tell me about your work schedule.

I am grateful that I work at a hospital that does requestable self-scheduling. I can propose what I want my schedule to look like and that is amended based on staff availability. I prioritize getting three shifts in a row so that I can go fully nocturnal for 72 hours and then flip back onto a regular sleep schedule. 

Recently, I’ve been able to get on to a rotating schedule, so every two months I switch from night shifts to day shifts. I’m really grateful to have breaks from the night shift.

We say movement is medicine and I wholeheartedly believe it.

What’s life like outside of work?

It’s busy. My fiancé and I started training for marathons together in 2020. A year earlier, he had been diagnosed with a chronic condition that required radical lifestyle changes. Prior to his diagnosis, I had been a casual jogger but I had always wanted to be a marathoner. So when he said he wanted to do it too, that was the push I needed.

At this point, I’ve done three marathons and my fiancé is an Ironman athlete. We have a puppy. We are planning our wedding. We’re crazy busy, kind of by choice.

 

 

What’s your approach to training and running marathons while working night shifts? 

Marathoning looks different for shift workers. You need to be kind to your body. It was hard for me to find the balance of restorative sleep and movement that gives me energy.

First of all, a lot of the sample training schedules don’t work for shift workers. So I needed to make peace with the fact that my training schedule would be different than people who are not working the night shift. It took me a while to find what movement before work energizes me versus what drains me. Any type of movement between night shifts needs to be light and enjoyable. I save the harder training for off days.

Next, I’ve learned that training isn’t beneficial if you’ve only slept four hours. In our house, we call those “trash miles” since they don’t really move your training forward. There’s a lot of research showing that you should save your hard work for when you’ve had adequate rest.

Finally, be careful about comparison. It’s so important that we’re our own cheerleaders. But it can be hard not to compare your level of training with others. I see runners on social media who work from home and maybe go for a run on their lunch. But when you see someone posting their sleep time and running stats, it’s important to remember that their life looks different than yours.

Marathoning looks different for shift workers. You need to be kind to your body.

What advice do you have for shift workers who are trying to improve their fitness level?

Just starting is huge—even if it’s 10 minutes. If you’re tired and you don’t feel like moving, it’s important to find the difference between “I need to rest to let my body recover” versus “I can move a little and feel better afterward.”

If you’re a task-oriented nurse who thrives on executing plans, there are many programs on YouTube and fitness apps that offer great intro programs. The Peloton app has a good 30-day program. Whatever you decide, make a calendar for yourself and check some boxes.

 

 

The nursing community is struggling with burnout. Let’s talk about movement and mental health.

This past winter, I experienced my lowest low. My sleep schedule was off because of work and I had totally dropped exercise. I was crying all the time. Fortunately for me, I have a supportive partner who knows what I need to be happy and who helped me slowly get back into running.

There is this whole community of nurses struggling. I’ve had a lot of people reach out about wanting to do something but not being able to stick with it. I think an accountability partner is key. You can keep it simple: “Let’s do 10 minutes of stretching three times a week.” Even if you’re not in the same state, you can check in with each other and the success will come.

We say movement is medicine and I wholeheartedly believe it. Something about being breathless gets you so focused on your breathwork and your heart rate that you can’t worry about anything else. Movement is a piece of the puzzle to help strong nurses look after both their bodies and minds.

 

 

Thank you, Emma, for sharing your passion for running with us! We love your balanced approach and positive attitude. To follow along as Emma trains for her next marathon, check out her IG @thenightshiftrunner

Last updated: 2024-03-11

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Lauren McGill

I work at the intersection of healthcare and storytelling. As a medical writer, I help healthcare experts publish content so they stand out as thought leaders.

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