Graduate school is a balancing act for most of us. We all have to juggle coursework, research, teaching, and perhaps some semblance of a social life. For Shalaya Kipp, a 1st year Integrative Physiology graduate student in Dr. Rodger Kram’s locomotion lab, this delicate balance consists of fulfilling graduate school responsibilities while training as a professional athlete.
As a distance runner for CU track and field during her undergraduate years, Shalaya is well versed in balancing academics with athletics and has a tremendous record to show for it. Her growing list of accolades includes Olympian, as she qualified for the 2012 London Olympic Summer Games in the 3000-meter steeplechase. In 2013, she competed in the steeplechase at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. Upon graduating, she has made the transition from competing at the collegiate level to the professional sphere, all while working on her Master’s thesis. Impressed yet? I sure was.
Shalaya’s passion for running extends beyond the track. For her graduate research, she measures the ground reaction forces associated with the steeplechase and aims to apply her findings toward enhancing athletic performance and preventing injury. “I care a lot about athletes because I am one,” she says, explaining how her athletic life inspired her scientific one. “I love exercise physiology, I love knowing what is happening to myself down to the cellular level.”
High ground reaction forces, i.e. the forces exerted by the ground on the body during contact, are correlated with how punishing an athletic event can be on the body. According to Shalaya, the steeplechase is a notoriously rough event for runners, yet not much is known about the associated ground reaction forces. The 3000-meter steeplechase, which takes seven and a half laps to complete, is comparable to an obstacle course with five solid wood barriers per lap. The very last barrier of each lap is a water jump, consisting of a wood barrier followed by a 12-foot long water-filled pit. Throughout one race, runners must clear 35 barriers, with seven of those being the water jump. Shalaya and her lab members are the first to measure the forces involved in this event.
So far, Shalaya has observed high ground reaction forces upon landing after clearing these barriers. The forces associated with the water jump are especially high, and can equate to about 5-6 times an athlete’s body weight. With a large number of barriers per race, such high impact forces can take a toll on the body.
This knowledge can be used to impact current training strategies. As an athlete studying the biomechanics of her discipline, she’s in a unique position to see this research through to practice. “My coaches have seen a lot of this data, and it’s made us back off on how much steepling we do in practice. Once a steepler has good form, a coach knows they can lay off and in turn, that can make them less injury susceptible and keep them healthier,” she says.
Although her graduate studies are related to her athletics, maintaining a symbiotic relationship between the two can be a challenge. Studying for exams and staying up late are not conducive to morning workouts. When both schedules get demanding, how does she do it? “I try to think of it as having two Shalayas. One is my athletic Shalaya and one is my academic Shalaya. It’s like a switch, I can only be one at a time,” she explains. “In the morning I need to run…and I can’t think about an exam later that day or scheduling subjects in the lab. Once I’m in the lab, I turn off the athlete and just focus on research and school.” Her love for her chosen field also helps. “The passion I have for both really keeps the other one going.”
When she’s not on the track or in the lab, you can find Shalaya in the kitchen. As an avid cook, she enjoys making healthy, tasty meals to fuel her active lifestyle. She shares her recipes on her blog The Runner’s Kitchen. For Shalaya, cooking is something fun to do on the side. “My life is so much about running that I want to show other aspects of myself. I don’t want to be just defined by this one parameter.”
There was no way for me to get through interviewing Shalaya without asking about the Olympics. “It was such a whirlwind, it didn’t feel real the whole time I was there,” she says. “After I qualified, everyone said it’s going to hit you at some point. It still hasn’t hit me.” On her most significant moment: “Walking the opening ceremony, just because it’s something that you’ve watched on TV since you were little. That was really the chilling, goose bumps moment.”
Other than the 2012 Olympics in London, her career has taken her to some incredible places including Ireland, Monaco, and Moscow. Despite her travels and achievements, she feels her greatest accomplishment so far is the life she’s living right now. “Every morning I get to wake up and be a professional athlete, and then I get to go into the lab and research what I love. I think its very unique and I don’t know many other people in my situation that get to do something so great.”
By Aggie Mika