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Tips for the time-crunched athlete

Time.  It’s the one thing we all have the same amount of, and it’s the one thing we all wish we had more of.  How is it that some people seem to get more done than others?  Why do some of us struggle to get half of our activities done only to run out of daylight?  The answer came to me when I started taking a course on life coaching.

As a running coach, I am put in a particularly sticky situation.  My athletes look to me for guidance and motivation as they set their sights on a particular goal.  When they join my team, I have them fill out an athlete profile where they answer questions regarding their goals, their lifestyles, and the time they have to devote to training.  It helps me to devise a plan that fits into their lives, but it also shows me where their running goals and their time to train might not be in alignment, especially when you add in strength training, yoga, or other complimentary activities.

Prioritizing is often thought of as a dirty word.  It usually means we have to assign importance to the myriad of things we have to deal with on a daily basis – and this is a problem for us because we think everything is important.  But the truth is there are some aspects of our lives that must get top billing, and that means that something has to be at the bottom of the list and might need to get booted if we run out of hours at the end of the day.

I fell into the trap of overbooking myself while training for the Hartford Marathon in 2015.  I was working full-time, going to college, and aiming for a marathon PR which meant speed training, long runs, and strength training sessions.  I chugged along, running six days a week and cramming in 3-4 days of strength training.  Unfortunately, I forgot about an important aspect of training – I’d neglected to plan in rest and recovery time.  As a result, I arrived at the start line fatigued, and my marathon suffered.

So, what is important to a runner and how do we figure out what we need to be a strong, healthy athlete while juggling family, work, and other obligations?  To get some perspective, I asked a couple of my friends to share some of their advice on what to do and when to do it.   

Professional runner Mike Wardian says, “I am a runner, so my focus is running.  I do some cross training by cycling and/or swimming, but mostly I run.”  He continues on to say that while he believes that running should be a priority, he also understands that a runner can benefit by weight training to create a more rounded, healthier athlete.  “My weight training sessions have become non-negotiable, and it really comes [down] to when I need to get up,” Mike claims. “I try to be as efficient as possible.”  He calls some of what he does “invisible training,” meaning he will run or bike to work and get some miles in that way, or he would run or walk with the stroller when his kids were small. By heeding Mike’s advice, it’s easy to see that by incorporating some of life’s daily chores into our workouts, we can alleviate some of the time-crunching that inevitably occurs in a busy lifestyle.

“You’re asking a good and important question, one that all runners must come to grips with,” says Amby Burfoot, former editor of Runner’s Worldmagazine and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon.  He continues, “The answer depends on several things, but mainly, what is your current primary goal?”  Amby feels that if your short-term goal is to attain a PB at an upcoming race, then your focus needs to shift to your running workouts.  However, he agrees with Mike on strength training, and advises that “regular strength training is important for its anti-aging effects; we all lose strength as we age.”

Okay, so we all agree that runners need to run, and that to be well-rounded we need to strength train.  Prioritizing – that dirty word again – needs to be implemented so we can be efficient in our training and still have time to play with our kids, sleep, and enjoy time with our spouses.  A great way to do this is to set up a plan, so we can evaluate all the activities that need to happen and in what order they need to happen in.  We can also look to see how we can combine certain activities (as Mike mentioned above) and maximize our training time.

Amby also offers some different ideas on getting that training in. “Don’t overlook steady-paced walking; it’s a great workout,” he says.  So, how about a quick power walk at lunch?  Or during your child’s baseball practice?  Or maybe a family hike on the weekend?  Mike thinks “having the family involved is so cool,” and feels that is an important way to combine training and family activities. “Everything is possible,” Mike says. He has two boys, a dog, a full-time job as an international ship broker, is a coach, and a full-time professional athlete, so finding ways to train that have a minimal impact on family and work obligations is key for him.

Taking Mike’s and Amby’s advice into consideration, what could I have done differently in my marathon training that might have resulted in a better outcome?  First, I could have dropped my running down to 5 days a week to give me a little more recovery time.  Second, since I was targeting a PR, I could have dropped one or two strength training sessions a week to focus more on running.  Finally, if I had made a plan for all my projected activities before I registered for the marathon, I may have realized that I didn’t have the ability to properly train for that goal, given everything else I had going on.

Having a job and a family and being an athlete can be a struggle, but if we plan it right it can be extremely rewarding.  Sometimes we may need to forego a run or a strength training session, but this will not make or break our race and shouldn’t be worried about. The bottom line is that running and working out should be enjoyed and not be a source of stress, but it can be a difficult journey if we try to wing it.  If you’re not a planner, it’s time to become one so that you won’t have to give up your sport, miss your child’s soccer games, or anger your spouse for not making them a priority.  In the end you’ll have a happier family and you’ll be a healthier (and less stressed-out) athlete – and you just might find that you end up with more free time than you thought you had.

Mike Wardian is an ultrarunner and marathoner.  He has a long list of accomplishments to his name, including holding the record for the World Marathon Challenge and wins at the US 50K, 50M and 100K championships. He lives with his family in Arlington, VA.

Amby Burfoot is a marathoner who grew up under the coaching of legendary runner John J. Kelley. In addition to his win at the 1968 Boston Marathon, he holds the record for the most consecutive completions of the Manchester Road Race at 57 times and is the former editor of Runner’s WorldMagazine.  Amby lives with his wife in Mystic, CT.

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