One of the things I love about running Precision Hydration is that I get to spend time around athletes at every level of performance and across an eclectic range of sports.
But how do we - i.e. those of us who aren't professional athletes - balance training with the demands of modern life?
The difference between pros and the rest
At the top end of the scale, my mind is blown time and time again by the intensity, focus and dedication we witness in the top professional athletes we meet as they’re preparing for world class competition.
Whether it’s standing on the sidelines watching NFL pre-season practice in 30 degree heat, when up to 50% of the guys are going to be cut from the team so they’re fighting tooth and nail for their careers, to supporting a bunch of pro Ironman athletes on a camp where they’re logging 40+ hours of training per week, we get to observe human beings pushing the limits of what is possible in very different areas.
As an all-round sports fan, it gives me goosebumps watching that kind of stuff close up. It also gives me an insight into the amazing performances people can achieve when life can be structured so that working on improving physical and mental abilities is the number 1 priority.
As fascinating and inspiring as all of that pro level stuff is though, it’s not actually the reality for most of us. Far from it. In fact, I know that the majority of people who have Sweat Tests with us are not full-time, professional athletes whose lives are built around peak athletic performance.
It’s much more likely that you’re trying really hard to squeeze training and competing in around a job, family, social commitments, hobbies and the odd bit of down time as well.
And that’s very similar to how my life is these days. Whilst I can’t claim to have been any sort of truly world class performer, I did compete at a pseudo pro level as a triathlete for a short time, so I do have first hand experience of what having it’s like to have training as the main priority in life.
However, over the last decade or so, I’ve essentially been on a long, steady transition into the place I find myself now, which is just trying to keep fairly fit around an increasingly demanding job and a growing family, having navigated pretty serious knee surgery and a few other minor curve balls that life chucked out along the way.
Balancing sport with the rest of your life
What follows therefore are some bits of advice from my own experiences as someone who wants to run a business, be a good husband and dad and yet still turn up and feel the burn in a good way at a few races every now and then, without worrying the paramedics too much.
I’m definitely not saying I’ve got it all figured out, I’m sure if you asked my wife she’d have something to say on that matter, but then again there might be a few things in there that strike a chord with you if you’re in a similar boat.
Get it done first thing in the morning
We’re not all alike on this front, but I definitely know that I am an early morning person, though probably more by conditioning than any kind of natural predisposition. That doesn’t mean I bounce out of bed like a spring chicken, I’m quite the opposite most of the time actually.
However, I do know that once I’ve beaten the duvet monster off and got myself vertical, the first few hours of each day are by far and away my most productive. That means that I often try to get my training done at that time whilst the going is good.
The alarm usually goes off around 6am (if my young children Bobby and Bethany haven't already decided it’s time we should all be up drawing with felt tips on the laminate flooring before then) and then often it’s a 30 min run or a 40 min swim session before coffee and breakfast.
Once that’s in the bag, my mood is definitely improved and I tend to start the day with a bit more energy. The ‘first thing in the morning principle’ limits the chances of other things in life getting in the way of training too and, anyway, at the end of a tiring day it’s a lot more tempting to get sucked into the couch.
It’s probably the number 1 reason I still manage to train on more days than I don’t at this point in my life. Handily, it also keeps training away from tea time, bath time and bedtime story reading, which are things that we make a big effort to prioritise as a family when I am working at home.
Choose ‘manageable’ goals
Most athletes are highly goal orientated people. For many of us, attempting regular training without a goal leads to nothing really happening, whilst training with a goal tends to result in full on commitment.
The problem with the ‘full on commitment’ thing is that when you choose a complicated, long and hard event (like an Ironman for example), the preparation required has the potential to cause friction as it rubs up against other areas of your life.
Some people just cap the level of commitment they’re willing to put in once a goal is established, but I’ve always found that tough once I’ve signed up for something, as I have this itch to just do a little more preparation.
I’ve found that having one main big but manageable goal each year seems to work well for me, and most recently I’ve aimed for things like long distance trail running races, a long distance paddling event or some swim/run events.
These have been ‘manageable’ in the sense that they mainly involve training for 1 sport at a time rather than trying to do 3 or more sports, whilst being scary and exciting enough to actually stimulate some training on the days you don’t feel much like heading out.
I’ve also steered myself towards a lot of pairs or team races of late, because both the pressure of needing to train to keep up with others, and the camaraderie of the events themselves (and the banter that lasts a long time afterwards), is probably more important to me than out and out personal achievement now.
The 15 minute rule
Something that took me a very, very long time to come to terms with was the idea that you really can do a meaningful training session that lasts for half an hour or less.
When I was putting in 20+ hour training weeks, the only 30 min sessions I did were recovery ones, most were 90 min or more in length. I now regularly tell myself that even a 15 or 20 min session is worth getting in, if it’s all you’ll do during a particular day. For me this means that a hard 2 or 3 mile run with a very brief warm up and cool down is a session in it’s own right.
To most hardened endurance athletes 15 minutes would be considered a joke of a session, but the actual difference between 15 min of hard running and 0 minutes (with your backside wearing a deeper and deeper groove in the office chair or couch) is HUGE.
Don’t dismiss the value of a few very short, sharp workouts when your time is very constrained. They’re definitely worth doing and will help keep you in shape, even if they aren’t going to drive big improvements on their own.
Keep the weight down
I raced at about 68kg (150lb) most of the time when I was trying to be competitive. Now I’m hovering around 70kg (154lb) generally. That’s despite doing 3-6 hours training per week at the moment, compared with 20 when I was training full on.
Whilst I accept that I’ve lost a fair bit of muscle mass from my legs now that I no longer cycle often (my poor shrunken quads!), the fact that I’ve not stacked on too much of a spare tyre definitely pays dividends with running and other weight bearing sports, as well as helping my general sense of wellbeing and self confidence.
To keep the weight down I do have to try significantly harder than I did when training a lot, so I apply a sort of Pareto principle ’80/20’ rule to what I eat and drink. That is I mostly (around 80% of the time) eat wholesome, healthy foods but I am more relaxed, or indulgent, 20% of the time.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s probably the core principle on which I try to base what to eat these days. In essence I just think that keeping in decent shape makes me feel more like an athlete in both the physical and mental sense and so removes another barrier from my continued participation in, and enjoyment of, training and racing.
Get the most bang for your buck
A bit like with learning to accept that a 15 min training session is a viable activity, if training time is going to be limited then I’ve found that I have to be very ruthless about what I do. My warm ups and cool downs are super short these days, and as a rule I train pretty hard, with lots of intervals or tempo paced running, swimming and riding.
As much as I hate neglecting it, I’ve also essentially dropped strength training and gym work - I used to do 2-3 circuit type sessions a week but, whilst they are phenomenal for all round conditioning, they are not so good for generating sport specific fitness.
I can't argue with the coaches and athletes who say that strength training has a place in your programme, it probably should do if you can fit it in, but with 4-6 hours a week to play with and when I have a sport specific goal, I don’t feel I have the time.
Instead if I am training for a running race, 90% of my training time will be running, for a swim it would be a similar story with pool time. At the end of the day, specificity is a fundamental part of training so you can’t really negotiate with that when time is a scarce resource.
The only exception to the specificity rule for me at the moment is if I pick up an injury. If that happens I’ll often try to do some cross training or gym work as an alternative, or to help correct whatever the issue is. Of course, things might change as I get older and holding onto muscle mass is a bigger priority, but time will have to tell on that one…
Include other people
One of my favourite training sessions in the last couple of years has been a longish weekend run with my wife Lucy and the kids out on a bike at the same time. When Lucy has wanted to run too all we’ve done is switch with each other from time to time during the session so that one of us is always running.
This can be a great interval session if you run hard, with someone there to carry a water bottle for you and with some unexpected sprints and shuttle runs thrown in when the kids decide to drop plastic dinosaurs/cuddly toys etc from the bike seat for the runner to pick up!
It’s a great family activity and gets us all out in the fresh air together. I also hope that it’s setting an a bit of example for Bobby and Bethany as they grow up, so that being part of a family where Mum and Dad both wear tight lycra trousers and go running through the woods on a Sunday morning is considered ‘normal’. Poor things. I really do think it's already having an impact though as Bobby now regularly does the kiddies Parkrun on a Sunday morning.
On the work side, PH cofounder Jonny and I have found it helps to chew the fat about some of the more gnarly work issues we’ve faced whilst sat in the seats of a K2 racing kayak, slogging up and down the river or harbour together in Christchurch from time to time.
Combining discussions with some light training at the same time is an efficient way of fitting both in and it also acts to open up the mind and gets us out of the office for a while for a change of scenery.
Whilst the period when I was a full-time athlete was an enjoyable time in my life, I was a more selfish person than I hope I am now (though it would be worth checking with Lucy on that one…).
In many ways you do have to be selfish to be a full time athlete. Everything needs to be skewed to try to ensure you get enough time for both training and recovery. And, in general, these are activities that are pretty incompatible with most other people’s lives.
Although I do still prioritise training some of the time over little bits of the day that I could otherwise dedicate to family or work, I feel like it’s done in a slightly more balanced way these days.
I actually believe if I didn’t set at least some of this time aside for training it would impact negatively on the other aspects of life because training and being fit is something that is important to me now for more than just racing. It wouldn’t be physically or mentally healthy for me to give it up completely, so it needs slotting in somewhere.
I also have to admit that, whilst I occasionally miss the buzz of being at bigger competitions, I don’t miss the stress in the build up to them in any way whatsoever. Nor do I miss the feeling of having to say no to a lot of social occasions or the odd glass of wine with Sunday lunch because I still have another training session to squeeze in that day!
And, whilst I'm certainly no longer performing at the peak of my ability, surprisingly I'm still managing to put in some pretty pleasing performances on a much lighter training load. This year I've managed to...
- Run 5km in 16min 58sec (My PB is 15 min flat, about 8 years ago when I was AHEM years old)
- Clock in at 52min for an Ironman distance swim (My best ever being 50mins)
- Do a 257w FTP test on my Wattbike (My PB there is about 345w). I was definitely egged on by staff rivalry and banter on that one...
That's all off about 4-6 hours training per week these days compared with 18-20hrs in the past, so it shows what you can achieve if you train smart.
Anyway, I hope that helps in some way as you try to find your own balance. I’d be keen to hear how you manage the many demands of modern life with training, just let me know via the comments. But right now, I’ve got to put the laptop down as I need to get a quick 15 min training session in…