Medical student Luke McCarron hones endurance skills on dual fronts by combining work at Addenbrooke’s with triathlon training
“You think triathlon is an endurance sport but I think people in an emergency department are better endurance athletes than most of us.”
Few would be in a better position to compare than Luke McCarron.
The 22-year-old won the bronze medal at the 2018 Ireland Sprint Triathlon National Championships but is also a medicine student at Jesus College and, as part of his studies, has been on placements in A&E and ICU departments.
“From March, I worked a couple of days a week in the emergency department in Derry,” explains McCarron.
“It was a great insight for me into how a hospital actually works.
“It was a great eye-opener. It was an eight-hour shift, you get half an hour for lunch and you’re on your feet the rest of the time.
“I worked over the summer in the emergency department, and since I’ve come back to Cambridge, I’ve been working in ICU about one day a week which has also been a real eye-opener.
“It’s quite special, but really sobering at the same time.”
McCarron is now in his fourth year, having done an intercalated degree in management last year, and assisting on the frontline in hospitals – at Derry and Addenbrooke’s – during the pandemic has given everything a sense of perspective.
In Cambridge, McCarron has been working across both the Covid and non-Covid ICU wards.
“I think working in hospitals this past year has made me realise that even though sometimes we as athletes can get very much sucked into our sport and see it as the be all and end all, it’s not the be all and end all,” he says.
“It’s really nice to almost have a reality check that life does not revolve around your sport or what your level of fitness is, life is very different from that.
“It’s quite nice as well going into hospital and doing work – you get that same level of satisfaction that you do from doing a hard day’s training.
“It helps you see what you’re learning is useful and it’s got real-life implications.
“Between studies and work and sport, if you don’t have a great day in sport, you can come back, sit down at your desk and do a bit of studying, or go into work in ICU or A&E, and sport is not that big anymore, you don’t need to worry about it so much.
“Equally so, if you didn’t have a great day in medicine and didn’t feel like you got that much out of it or didn’t learn that much, you can retreat into your sport and do some training.”
It is not to trivialise anything but sport does also provide such an important form of escapism to many people.
As a sport lover, McCarron recalls the conversations with patients about a previous day’s Premier League fixtures or the following night’s rugby.
“Going into hospital, you realise you are quite lucky to be fit, healthy and well,” he says. “I want to take advantage of that and not let it slip.
“It also inspires you to work that little bit harder and do that little bit more when it comes to studying.”
No one can fault McCarron on that front, take just the training for the triathlon.
It is not a matter of mastering one discipline but trying to perfect three and then bring them altogether.
The sport almost has a snowball effect to it, very few jump straight into it, more have a gradual leaning in that direction.
As a child, McCarron’s triathlon odyssey had its roots in the swimming pool but, in the early teens when gains were more marginal, he took a step back to take up Gaelic football.
The drip feed effect continued.
“I started running more to complement the fitness in Gaelic football more than anything else,” he explains.
“One of my friends was into cycling, so I took up cycling around that time as well. It was pretty relaxed, nothing competitive.”
It was at a kids triathlon to celebrate Derry becoming the UK City of Culture in 2013 that the bug bit, and by the time he was 17, that was the sole attention.
But what is the appeal, especially given the amount of dedication needed to all three disciplines – swimming, cycling and running?
After all, regular training for McCarron would entail three weeks each of between 20 and 30 hours followed by an ‘easier’ week of 10 to 15 hours.
“I suppose the appeal to me is that I get so much satisfaction from triathlon and seeing improvement,” he explains.
“I really like going to bed tired, and that I have got something out of the day. I like thinking there has been a purpose to my day, and a purpose to the session I’ve done.
“Triathlon and other endurance sports you can’t just do because you enjoy winning. It’s great but it lasts for so little time.
“When you get up, you have a goal and purpose to your day because you know that you need to do this training to put yourself in a better place and position to achieve some of your goals.”
McCarron counters the suggestion that he is driven.
He prefers to use the description motivated, and you can understand what he means.
There is no particular goal in sight currently, it is just the desire to improve. But he wants to make sure that no quarter is spared.
“I don’t see going to bed early as a sacrifice because I feel so much better just having done the training I need to do rather than staying up late or whatever other options I had,” says McCarron.
“I’m one of those people who, whenever I do something, I want to do it right and put everything into it. I don’t want to be half-hearted.
“I’m not going to be able to do triathlons forever, and there will be a day when I have to stop but I want to see where it can take me and I want to see how far I can go in triathlon.”
It comes back down to the question of appeal though, or a another word that McCarron uses regularly, enjoyment.
To break down his 20 to 30 hours a week, it would consist of 20km to 25km swimming over five to six sessions, 300km to 400km cycling over five sessions, and 50km to 70m running across five to six sessions.
There would also be one to two strength and conditioning sessions and two stretching sessions a week.
How is that enjoyable, especially with studying on top?
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing. Ninety-six per cent of what I do I really enjoy. The parts I don’t enjoy? Swimming at 5.30am; I don’t enjoy going out on the bike in the rain for four or five hours,” says McCarron.
“I am getting to see how good I can get in a sport and I realise how lucky I am to be able to do that.
“I’m so privileged to be able to give up that amount of time and invest that time and money into a sport.
“I want to give it as good a shot as I can to show people that I really appreciate what they have and are doing for me.
“The second part of my enjoyment is that I just feel so much better when I get outside and get some piece of exercise done.
“I think that’s ubiquitous among everyone who I speak to, they just feel so much better when they get outside and do some form of exercise.”
There is another aspect to the training – having to arrange it around his studies and placement.
Being organised seems to be the mantra, but also that the two balance off against each other well.
While at university, it has helped McCarron with the flexibility of his scheduling.
“Sport actually makes me more effective when it comes to studying,” he explains.
“I know whenever I sit down to study that I will only be able to do it for one or two hours because I’m out training again, going to sleep or eating, and that really breaks up the day for me.
“It is way easier to know that you’re only able to work for a limited number of hours. I find a lot of people have struggled with lockdown especially because they have 12 to 14 hours a day that they could allocate to study or academics.
“Whenever you have 12 to 14 hours, you’re not as efficient or as effective during that time and you end up wasting quite a bit of it. So it is great that sometimes sport gives me that structure.”
McCarron has also been assisted by being part of the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme.
The support provided has been hugely beneficial, such as the access to strength and conditioning coaches and plans.
“Being part of UCAPP has been a really positive experience and probably a turning point when it comes to my sport at university,” he says.
“I feel UCAPP gives me so much support, it really feels like there is someone in your corner and fighting for you. It’s great to have that.
“Hopefully I will be able to repay their work and efforts whenever races begin again.”
McCarron has already shown what he may be capable of achieving with the bronze medal in 2018, and he was also Irish schools champion in 2017.
He was also on the shortlist for the Northern Ireland squad for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“Going forward, I just want to race for Ireland and put on that green vest as many times as I can and hopefully that will also be at major championships – the European and world championships, and maybe one day the Olympics,” he adds.
“I want to see how good I can get and hopefully that will entail me going to major championships at some point.”
You get the impression that the combination of medicine and triathlon will help keep McCarron grounded to be able to pursue all his goals.