1 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 2 year old son Bobby has not 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 one 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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…
6 Do sessions that include other important people
One of my favourite training sessions in the last couple of years has been a longish weekend run with my wife Lucy and son Bobby 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 and it’s a great family activity and gets us all out in the fresh air together.
I hope that helps in some way as you try to find your own balance. Right, now I’ve got to put the laptop down as I need to get a quick 15 min training session in…
Andy Blow has a few top 10 Ironman and 70.3 finishes and an Xterra World Age Group title to his name. He founded Precision Hydration to help athletes solve their hydration issues. He has a degree in Sport and Exercise Science and was once the Team Sports Scientist for Benetton and Renault F1 teams.