As a junior doctor and working up to 80 hours a week, Lauren Howarth tells Emily Moss that combining elite athletics with full-time work can be done
With so many of today’s athletes believing you have to train full-time to “make” it, Lauren Howarth is proof you can combine a successful career with representing your country at international level.
It may well be harder, but 25-year-old Howarth enjoys the challenge her busy lifestyle presents.
“So far I have completed 19 months as a junior doctor, working at my local hospital, Wigan Infirmary,” she says. “It can be very busy working nearly 80 hours a week at times. Nights are the toughest and I struggle to sleep during the day, so I get very little sleep. However, I enjoy work most of the time and I’m glad I completed my medical degree.”
After a successful junior career that included third in the 2008 European Cross and 13th in the World Cross in Jordan the following year, the Leigh Harrier enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2013, finishing sixth in the European Indoor Championships over 3000m and breaking nine minutes for the first time with 8:52.00 at the British Athletics Indoor Grand Prix.
A quiet 2014 followed, where she barely competed aside from a few parkruns due to injuries and work demands, but through 2015 Howarth was gradually getting accustomed to her hectic work pattern and after some encouraging 5km and 10km road clockings, she finished the year with 17th in the European Cross in Hyères.
However, arguably few people realise what Howarth is doing behind the scenes. Whereas many athletes have the luxury of putting their feet up between training sessions, Howarth is walking quite literally miles up and down the wards. But it is a lifestyle the determined athlete is embracing.
“It can be very busy working nearly 80 hours a week at times … However, I enjoy work most of the time and I’m glad I completed my medical degree”
“It is easy to fit the running in around working long hours, but it’s the gym sessions and all the injury prevention exercises that I struggle to do,” she says, clearly playing down the challenge of combining a demanding day job and training as a GB athlete. “I have a love-hate relationship with work, but that’s the same with most things in life. I only double-run once a week so I get plenty of recovery and running around the wards is training itself. I’m really glad I did medicine, despite being told numerous times that you cannot combine the two. I have memories of team leaders at a London Marathon camp and at the World Juniors advising me against the career.”
She goes one step further, when she reveals: “I feel it is very important for me to have a job alongside training, as I need a distraction from running. Full-time running has its benefits though and would open up opportunities to go altitude training.”
A typical “long day” would involve Howarth working 8am-8.30pm, with a 40-minute run home from work. On shorter days, she often runs at 6am, works 8am- 5pm, drives 50 minutes home and then goes to the gym for 45 minutes.
In December 2015, she began working part-time, but she explains: “When I started work I was convinced I could combine the two, but a year later I was nowhere near my best, so I made the decision to go part-time. However, it’s a long application process and has to be approved by many people, so this meant by the time I actually went part-time I had achieved my goal of running for GB while working full-time, doing nights and working weekends. Therefore, it can be done!”
Having experienced the full-time working life, Howarth is now looking forward to the benefits that a less strenuous working life will bring, but from the perspective of an athlete who has already achieved highly while working full-time. She is now looking for that extra edge, as opposed to simply “expecting” to train full-time as a GB athlete, which is an increasingly common attitude.
“I work three standard days a week with a few on-calls and on average one weekend every six to eight weeks, which is so much better than previously. Going part-time will give me chance to relax and enjoy training more, instead of trying to squeeze everything in. It also has opened up an amazing opportunity to join Team New Balance Manchester,” she says, referring to training as part of Steve Vernon’s training squad.
Having started being coached by twice National winner and GB cross country and mountain running international Vernon in October, Howarth says: “I can already see the difference it has made in my training. Just having structure, a lovely group to train with and getting me back in the gym. My training has totally changed in the last couple of months. Steve is very encouraging and the girls are great training partners. I think it is one of the best decisions I have made in my athletics career.”
Having represented Great Britain 11 times since 2008, Howarth has become a regular face at international championships. Picking out highlights from her career so far, she reflects: “2013 was a fantastic season and showed what I can do when I’m fit and get on a track. That indoor season was the only ‘track’ season I have properly had since 2008. The main goal of that season had been the World Cross, but the British indoor trials certainly changed things. Having never raced on an indoor track before, I was surprised how easily I took to it and I am delighted with my results that season. I have so many good memories from running, like my first GB vest at the 2008 world junior track and field championships in Poland.”
“I feel it is very important for me to have a job alongside training, as I need a distraction from running. Full-time running has its benefits though and would open up opportunities to go altitude training”
After a few injuries and adapting to working life as a junior doctor, Howarth has been back in form this winter and was delighted to finish 2015 with a team gold from the European Cross. “This year was very tough at the start,” she says. “I had a couple of setbacks with nerve issues in my foot and back problems, and the track season did not go to plan. The main issue was my workload and adapting to working full time, which is not just a standard 9-5 job, and I was struggling to have a structured training plan.
“This winter I went from being a 35-minute 10km runner at the start of September to turning my training around, and qualifying for the Europeans under the guidance of Steve. I knew I was in shape to run well at Liverpool and qualify for the Europeans and I was the most relaxed I had ever been going into the trial race.”
Despite her success in cross country, Howarth likes track more and her aim for this year is to make the Olympics in Rio. Working part-time should also enable Howarth to spend more time with her boyfriend, last year’s National silver medallist Andrew Heyes, whom she met at the European Cross three years ago.
“I run with him when I can, but I slow him down,” she says. “I really like going to Sheffield and training on the hills around there, as it makes a change from the flat running around Wigan.”
However, she was less impressed when Heyes recently went to Alberqurque altitude training for a month, while she worked.
Howarth comes from a running family, as her grandfather holds the age-75 five-mile British record and he was competing in the World Masters Championships until fairly recently. Her sisters (Rebecca, 27 and Abigail, 23) completed a half-marathon together in Florida (where Rebecca lives) on the same day and setting off at the same time as Howarth did in the European Cross.
Howarth is quick to credit the role of her family. She says: “The support from my family has been amazing. My mum makes my lunch and dinner. My dad is probably the biggest influence in my athletics career, as he always knows what to say, never puts any pressure on my sisters and I to compete and he is always there to go for a run with after a day of work when I’m finding it difficult to get out of the door.”
Although joking that when she is running she looks forward to scrambled egg, avocado and either smoked salmon or black pudding on toast as her favourite snack after training, on a more serious note, it is clear that Howarth is someone who has that intrinsic motivation to succeed in every area of her life. “What motivates me is to get the best out of myself,” she says.