Going the Distance: How to Build Endurance for the MCAT (or a Marathon)

By Julia Bauman

It is often said that the journey to becoming a doctor is a marathon, not a sprint. In my humble opinion, the comparison is apt. In fact, the premed’s path seems to me like a series of marathons, with various challenges stretching over the span of several years.

One of the most daunting pre-med endurance events of all is the MCAT, the grueling 7.5-hour exam that follows years of undergraduate coursework and months of dedicated studying. I had the unique opportunity to directly compare the exam to a marathon: In my senior year of college, I trained for the Vancouver Marathon and the June MCAT simultaneously. I discovered striking parallels between the preparation processes for each, ultimately learning lessons from running that benefitted my MCAT prep and vice versa.

  1. Building Your Base

    For any endurance sport, it is extremely helpful to begin with a solid foundation. Sure, a marathon trainee could work their way up to 26.2 miles from nothing, but it is much easier to begin with some running ability and a few shorter races under one’s belt. The same goes for the MCAT. Ideally, your MCAT prep time will mainly consist of reviewing facts and concepts learned previously. Undergraduate premed courses provide a perfect opportunity to establish a strong conceptual understanding of the topics tested, so use the time and resources wisely to give yourself the knowledge base necessary for strong performance on the exam.

  2. Set Up for Success

    A common cautionary phrase uttered from veteran marathoners to first-timers is “respect the distance,” meaning that one should acknowledge the difficulty of the physical feat they are attempting and plan their training accordingly. Similar advice applies for the MCAT. Good preparation for the exam takes substantial time and effort, so premeds should seriously evaluate their own needs and availability in deciding when to test.

    Additionally, premeds should choose their test date and location as carefully as a runner chooses their race – it’s not ideal to be weary from travel or stressed from another event immediately before pushing your mental or physical limits. With a bit of planning, testers can remove some of these unnecessary stressors that could hinder performance on exam day.

  3. Making Your Training Plan

    Preparing for an endurance sport is a lengthy process, and it is typically most effective when structured appropriately. For this reason, it is helpful to formulate a plan before you begin training.

    The marathon trainee has a lot on their plate: they must schedule in long runs, tempo runs, and maintenance runs in order to complete a sufficient weekly mileage while working toward a goal pace. The MCAT requires analogously varied and demanding daily practice. For the test, too, it is extremely helpful to make a detailed plan of what you want to accomplish each week. This is an excellent way to ensure that you make efficient use of your time and remain on track throughout your studying.

    There are several ways to create a strong training plan. Just as some runners may choose to hire a coach to help them meet their race goals, many premeds utilize a test preparation service to provide resources, structure and accountability. This can be a great option for those who would like extra support in their studying. However, it is also entirely possible to prepare independently. Excellent resources can be found online for little to no cost. If you take the self-guided route, it is advisable to use some official AAMC resources to ensure that you are covering all of the necessary material.

    [Visit StudySchedule.org to create a free study MCAT plan customized to your own personal resource library and time constraints.]

  4. Building Your Strength

    Your plan is set, resources are at the ready, and it’s time to begin training. Preparing for an endurance event is a long and arduous process, so it is important to maintain focus and motivation throughout. This is something that nearly every distance runner struggles with at some point – when a period of fatigue hits, a challenging workout can feel like an impossible task. Day after day of MCAT studying can produce similar sluggishness, but fortunately, there are several effective methods to combat this. One helpful tactic is to develop bite-sized daily or weekly goals. Just as a runner may aim to break a certain time on their morning maintenance run, the MCAT examinee might shoot for a certain score on a set of weekly practice questions. Another motivating strategy is to practice with others – study groups can add some extra accountability and may break up the monotony of solo preparation.

    It is also wise to use this training time to complete several “dress rehearsals”: a runner may do a weekly or biweekly long run to mimic the real marathon and track their progress. Analogously, taking full-length practice MCAT tests helps one build the mental endurance needed to remain sharp throughout the 7.5-hour exam. Some practice tests will also provide a score at the end, giving the test-taker a sense of where they stand in relation to their goal. Several scored practice exams can be purchased through AAMC; these are likely to be most similar to the real exam.

  5. The Home Stretch

    In the final weeks of training, the pressure builds and nerves may begin to appear. This is the span of time in which a runner will typically do a final long run, mimicking all race day conditions as closely as possible: they will likely try to eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and run a similar route to what they expect for the real deal. Many premeds find it useful to do a dry run of the MCAT as well. This gives you less to think about on exam day, potentially increasing your confidence and improving performance. Additionally, you can use the final practice test to identify weak areas that would benefit from extra studying in the days leading up to the MCAT.

  6. The Big Day

    The most calming piece of advice I received immediately prior to my marathon was “trust in your training.” You’ve spent months preparing for this event, and you’re ready for it! Follow through with your plan and stride in with well-earned confidence. And if possible, try to enjoy the day – this is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience and a significant step in your premed journey. Have pride in your preparation, and run your best race!


About the Author

Julia Bauman recently received a B.S. in Neurobiology from the University of Washington, Seattle and is currently a research associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in cell biology and genetics.

Discussion