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"You can hit the exams like a confident runner, ready to collect your medal in the summer."

Athletic Training Advice Fit for the Study Room

Mrs Hunn-Smith explains the shared principles of athletic event training and preparation for examinations. 

Training for an athletic event, in my case the recent Cambridge half marathon and forthcoming Ironman, is a lot like studying for GCSE and A Level qualifications. I talk about this a lot in my teaching and couldn’t resist the chance to expand on it now.

The end goal, let’s call it a marathon, both sounds, feels and indeed is incredibly daunting. Nobody can just run a marathon without preparing for it, even the professionals, and nobody starts their marathon training by running a 26.2 mile route: they start small and work their way up. 

You set yourself a goal, usually a target finish time, which is equivalent to an academic target grade. The target has to be realistic and it may evolve over time in response to changes in your life: you may need to adjust it down due to illness or injury or you may be able to make your goal more challenging if you see that you are performing better than you initially expected to. You also can’t worry too much about other people’s targets: they are running their own race and living their own life. The only person whose success you can control is your own so it’s the only one worth thinking about.

Your training does not take the form of repeatedly running that full distance and hoping to get faster at it through repetition alone. This would be like endlessly writing full length essays or completing full past papers as your sole form of revision. Some people approach their training casually, just fitting in what they can and seeing how things go. Those people can often still complete the race – or sit the exams – but they are less likely to achieve their personal goal or target grade than those who take a more structured approach.Runners tend to use three different runs throughout a careful training programme: recovery, speed and long runs. These challenge you in different ways, testing and developing different skills. The field of cognitive science in education mirrors this idea as does a lot of traditional scholarly advice about exam preparation.

In English, History and Media Studies work, we practise recall or ‘retrieval’ tasks every lesson: write out the 30 quotations you have memorised; list the dates of the wars, along with their key points and treaty terms; brain dump the theorists and how they apply to your set texts. These are the recovery runs: repetitive and, in theory, easy. You just keep repeating them over and over again until they become easier and easier to recall. The task itself does not need to get any harder but you will find it easier and easier, not to mention quicker and quicker, the more you practise.

In a speed run you have a different focus each session but the essence is running faster than you normally do, for a shorter period of time. This means the intensity is increased but the overall effort remains about the same. So instead of spending one hour completing a full past paper, you might spend 45 minutes just practising one type of question, or doing timed essay plans, or looking only at ‘explain’ type questions for your syllabus. It is really important to mix up the activities so you cover every element of your course but don’t worry if this work doesn’t ‘look like’ the final exam answer: it doesn’t need to and it isn’t meant to. The Swedish word for these types of runs is fartlek’ which transliterates as ‘speed play’. In your academic studies, these are your ‘tentaspel’: Swedish for ‘exam play’. These tasks can be silly and fun if you need them to be so allow yourself a different approach in these sessions.

Finally, the long run. Runners are encouraged to do these at the same time each week, when you have time for a longer, uninterrupted stretch of focus. These will be the times that you mimic a real exam but usually not a whole one at a time. If you attempt a full paper before you have done enough retrieval practice and ‘tentaspel’, you won’t reap much reward. Start with just one section at a time: 45 or 60 minutes on Section A of the June 2019 paper. Get feedback from your teacher before attempting Section B of the same paper the following week, or completing the 2020 Section A in the same subject. As you get closer to your exams, you need to make sure your long runs are as close as possible to the real thing: start at the same time of day; wear the same clothes; use the same pens; stick to the given timings; put away any books or prompts that you were using to help. 

If you have prepared in this way, the final exams become the big race days: your chance to put all your hard work into practice. Even if it feels hard in the moment, you know you have all your training to draw on, and everything you have learned during that preparation programme. You can be proud of yourself and all that you have achieved, earning your medal and everything else besides. 

Mrs Hunn-Smith led the Exam Preparation Evening on Thursday 30th March for Year 11 and Year 13 students. Year 11 and Year 13 study leave commences on Monday 15th May.