Chrissie Wellington on… Juggling balls as a triathlete

Britain’s four-time Kona queen on how to fit a busy life around meeting your triathlon goals

Chrissie Wellington on… Juggling balls

The need to balance training with your career, family, house upkeep and other obligations is common to triathletes the world over: not least because of the time and energy-intensive nature of the sport.


As a pro I had the luxury and privilege of making my passion my career and could devoter 24 hours a day to training. As an amateur, I was – and now am – a pro juggler.

Before turning professional in Feb 2007 I trained for about 20-25 hours a week, had a full time job, and squeezed in social and family time too. Granted, I didn’t have children – which adds another ball to the juggling mix. However, the thousands of age groupers that cross Ironman finish lines prove that combining a variety of activities is possible, with careful planning, time management, organisation and flexibility.

Of course, doing triathlon is our choice. Yes, it may be tough and you might question your sanity, but we’ve made the privileged decision to train and race. And, as the old adage goes, “If it were easy everyone would be doing it”. Juggling balls effectively is part of the challenge, but when you do manage it, the achievement is so much more satisfying.

‘Good stress’

Remember: “Life is 10 percent what you do and 90 percent how you perceive the situation”. It’s important to retain perspective. You’re not a pro: so you can’t train or race like one. And, you’re more than a triathlete. So focus on what you CAN do in the context of your life.

View triathlon as ‘good stress’ – rather than something that causes negative emotions. You may do shift work and thus perceive your training as being unstructured. Others would relish the opportunity to train at different times of the day, and also enjoy the variety that such a life brings.

Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be those that do more (or at least claim to). This is your life, and as long as you are living it to the full that’s all that matters.

Prioritisation, time management and organisation are paramount. Prioritise what activities are most important, and plan around them. Use a weekly/monthly/yearly calendar for this. Then make a realistic, feasible plan that fits around YOUR shift work, lifestyle, physiology and goal. This will enable you to create some structure, amidst what seems to be an unstructured existence.

Quality trumps quantity – every time

There’s no general rule for how many hours you should train for a triathlon, but I can tell you that the quality trumps quantity every time. Size doesn’t always matter. I improved by reducing training volume, and increased the quality.

Focus on fewer time-intensive sessions: intervals, hill repeats, tempo efforts. Often a 40min run with hard intervals can be more beneficial than a long steady slog. In this sense a turbo trainer is invaluable. No free-wheeling means that the time you need to spend is much less than on the road. It equals serious “bang for the buck”. Set it up the night before so you can wake up and jump straight onto it.

To plan, look at your typical week and carve out slots that you can almost certainly allocate to training and then look at secondary times that may possibly provide additional training opportunities. Determine your key sessions (based on your strengths and weaknesses), which you should always try to do and then ‘less essential supporting’ workouts.

Place the key sessions in the ‘always open’ time slots, and then fit the supporting workouts in if you can. It sounds simple, but that way you have a better chance of completing the specific and foundation sessions, and hence retain some consistency and progression. Of course, it will be important to adapt your schedule when needed. At times you may have to abbreviate and shorten sets or sessions, or drop one altogether. Frustration serves no purpose here. Just accept this as your reality, and move on.

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On a daily basis, make hay whilst the sun shines (or doesn’t, as the case may be in a British winter). If you have time to train, use it. Don’t waste time faffing, ironing your lycra or deliberating about what gel to eat.

Multitasking is also useful – can you run/bike your commute? A good set of lights can make nocturnal journeys possible. These commute cycles and runs can be structured sessions (intervals, hills, sprints, tempo). Or is there a swimming pool en route? Can you stop off, do a session and then head to work?

If you get a break during the day – use it, to rest or to train. Even 30mins is enough to squeeze in a run or strength and conditioning session. Keeping your kit at work makes this possible. If not, you could do some squats whilst waiting for the kettle to boil.

Many people prefer training with others for performance, social or motivation reasons, but I usually train alone. I don’t have to plan around others, never let anyone down, and prioritise my own goals. It’s not always as enjoyable, but it does mean that training is 100% focused on my own needs.

Family time

If you have a partner or children, you could make sessions ‘family time’. Craig Alexander’s family set up the ‘aid stations’ during his long run, or bike beside him. Ensure they are fully involved in the journey and the pursuit of a shared goal. Talking openly with work colleagues about triathlon can make them a little more understanding, and accommodating too.

Nutrition is part of training. Try to prepare large batches of food that you can freeze if necessary. Buy and prepare easily transportable, nutritious foods such as muesli bars, smoothies, bananas, rice cakes with peanut butter, sweet potatoes in foil – food that you can grab and eat on the fly. Can you also store food at work, to save time shopping for the next meal?

Wear compression attire under your work outfit, especially if you’re on your feet a lot of the time, as this can help with recovery. But ultimately, remember that triathlon is your hobby, and one that should bring you joy rather than stress or anxiety. So focus on what you CAN do – perfection is doing your very best in the context of your life.

For more from Chrissie follow her on Twitter (@chrissiesmiles) or head over to her blog.

(Images: Remy Whiting / Jonny Gawler)


Do you struggle to fit training around a busy schedule? Let us know in the comments!