Balancing competitive sports with studying medicine

I’m Niamh, a first year graduate medic at the University of Nottingham and I’m a senior member of the rowing team at Nottingham.

Rowing at Nottingham is seen as a high-performance sport due to the level we perform at regionally, nationally, and internationally. I learnt to row during my undergraduate degree at Hull accidentally as I didn’t mean to even sign up! Turns out rowing was the exact sport for me, and I rowed right up until the pandemic stopped everything. By this time, I felt happy with what I achieved in only 2 years in a sport and decided to ‘retire’.

I started to work during the pandemic as a healthcare assistant to see if maybe pursuing medicine really was the right path for me. I loved my job, I have never felt more at home in a hospital environment but that doesn’t mean that the stress and burn out didn’t affect me, it did very heavily. 

Once restrictions started to ease up and we could socialise again, I randomly decided to sign up to my local rowing club in oxford to maybe give it a go again. I spent the next year rowing in Oxford, the most picturesque place I have ever rowed, working in the hospital, and applying to graduate medicine programmes.

Balancing competitive sport & studying medicine

That year of working, rowing and studying was one of the most difficult and rewarding years of my life. Rowing allowed me to deal with the stress from work and studying for medical entrance exams, along with giving me the social life to have a good work-life balance. I believe it was this balance that led me to be successful in my applications that year. 

I am currently nearly finished my first year of medicine and have rowed alongside my degree this whole year. I have been able to represent my university at big races such as BUCS head and regatta where I medalled in both and in national races on the tideway in London. It has been hard to balance the intensity of studying medicine alongside a competitive sport, but I honestly believe without sports I would struggle to find balance in my life. Due to needing to organise my time so I can study, train, and have some down time I have found my procrastination has decreased massively because I don’t have time for it anymore! I still prioritise my studies obviously, but there are times where my workload is less and it is nice to be able to spend more time on my hobby. 

An average week for me medical school wise consists of 3 PBL sessions, about 5 hours, 7-10 hours of lectures and 3 hours of clinical skills work. An average week of training consists of about 12 training sessions a week made up of water sessions, ergs, cross training and strength and conditioning. 

What might a day look like?

I have written out a random day in my teaching week for you to see that it is completely possible to balance sport with a demanding course like medicine. 


  • 6.20am – wake up and get ready for morning S&C. Normally this is when I have ‘first breakfast’ and requires a shocking cold shower to wake me up!
  • 7am – S&C at the High-Performance Zone in David Ross, one major benefit of being a senior in rowing is the support available to be a student athlete and it helps make it possible. 
  • 8am – speed home for shower number two and pack my bag for a full day of university. I usually pack ‘second breakfast’, lunch, pre-dinner and some snacks. I have training after my teaching ends so I need to make sure I am fuelled and ready throughout the day. 
  • 9am – 12.30pm – PBL teaching in person at the medical school. I normally have breakfast and some snacks during this time along with presenting my research for our case and having some group discussions. 
  • 12.30pm – this block is sometimes a lecture, Nottingham runs off of asynchronous or online lectures however, we sometimes have guest in person lectures, so I try my hardest to attend these! If we don’t have a lecture then it’s the best time of the day, lunch and an excuse for a nice Starbucks. 
  • 1.30pm – 3.00pm – My first of two clinical skills classes this day, every Tuesday follows the same pattern and so my first class is always a practical skill related to my block I am studying at the time. 
  • 3.30pm – 5.00pm – My second clinical skills class is normally a communication and reflection class where we sit in small groups and discuss the topic for the session, for example, biases in medicine. 
  • 5.00pm – rush home and grab my training kit for the evening session which starts at 6. I usually grab some sort of snack or coffee number 4/5/6 depending on how long the day felt!
  • 6.30pm – Tuesday’s session is usually about building an anaerobic base to increase our threshold and make us more effective when at a higher heart rate and pace. This workout is an 18K row on an erg which is an indoor rowing machine. 
  • 8.30pm – Home time, immediately shower and do my bedtime routine so I can whip up a classic student dinner of chicken pasta or wraps and get to bed ASAP!
  • 9.30pm – realise I haven’t done my prep for anatomy class tomorrow and 9am and set my alarm for 6am again…

I hope this random day in my life hasn’t scared you from doing sports alongside medicine. Personally I do a very demanding sport and I understood that from when I started so I had very low expectations of free time. Many medic societies have medic specific sports which aren’t as demanding and work around your degree deliberately. Doing sports alongside your medical degree could be one of the best decisions you make throughout your degree. As doctors, you must be able to prioritise and organise your workday and be able to work effectively whilst also making time for yourself to avoid burnout. Medical school is all about preparing to be a doctor, learning, and developing these skills and sport is a perfect way to do this! 

Without rowing I can confidently say that I would not be sitting here writing this post as a first year in graduate medicine. I know many doctors through working who are avid rowers, marathoners or simply love an evening cycle and all praise the benefits of exercising and doing sport through their degree. If there is one thing you take from this blog it’s that exercise always has more benefits than downfalls and it is completely possible to do it with medicine! 

Written by Niamh Cunningham

Hi, my name is Niamh, I am 24 and currently in my first year of graduate medicine at the University of Nottingham. I am also part of the University of Nottingham Boat Club. Rowing and medicine are both very demanding, but a surprising number of rowers are also medics! I am also a coffee addict and spent most of my spare time binge watching Netflix and guessing the greys anatomy diagnoses! 

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