Damage Control: Training When You’re Slammed with Work or Life

It happens to everyone. Sometimes things are going good and steady. You wake up, you get some training in, you do your work, relax or go out on the weekends, and everything’s fine. But then something comes up or your schedule changes, and then it seems like training is disrupted, interrupted, or otherwise just plain messed up. (Skip to the bottom if you just want to skim some bullet points.)

I think that establishing a balanced rhythm or routine for your activities/commitments is one of the most important things you can do for their athletic success, personal satisfaction, and general well-being. Maybe you can ride every day and race whenever you want to, or maybe you have to squeeze in a 45m indoor training session 3x per week and just get in a slightly longer workout on the weekends, and you’re happy to get in just 5 or 6 hours on the bike each week. Whatever you can do to keep a routine and keep a steady flow of training is going to pay off in the long run. Clearly, some people have more time to train than others, or sometimes your schedule’s flexibility changes. Maybe we don’t like it, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we try to make the most of the resources that we have on hand without worrying about things our of our control. It doesn’t really matter what our schedule could be like or about what other people do. Rather, making comparisons can often make us dissatisfied by thinking things could be better. Do take advantage of any tweaks you can make to your routine to maximize your productivity at work, your free time at home, and your availability to train, but never worry about the things that you can’t change or can’t control. Rather, just try to make the most of whatever it is you’re dealing with.

Do what we will, things still come up and get in the way. It can be a challenge sometimes if you get swamped at work and have long hours, if you’re planning a wedding, have a child’s soccer season or family vacation to work around… Sometimes you just can’t train the way you’d like to or the way you’re used to. Though this may be the case sometimes, I think the worst thing you can do is take an all-or-nothing approach and give up.

You might tell yourself: “This is lousy! I can’t train at all this week, next week looks like a mess, and the week after that I’m out of town for work. It looks like my training just isn’t going to happen for the next three weeks, and it’ll probably take me at least a month or two to catch up after taking a break like that! I guess it doesn’t matter what I do now, I might as well give up and just do what I can to start over in a month or two!”

Anyway, try not to worry about it, and just do what you can. Here are a few thoughts on what to do:

  • Just do what you can. 30 min on an indoor trainer before work is way better than nothing at all.
  • Commute by bike or foot. Take the long way home, or stop by the gym.
  • Stop by the gym on your lunch break. Do some strength work or a quick 30m interval session.
  • Work on your weak spots. Do some core work, strength exercises.
  • Focus on intensity. After a warm-up, doing sprints, 30 sec efforts, or 1 min efforts with short recovery is almost certainly the most efficient way to train when you’re temporarily tight on time.

If you’re stuck on a trainer or treadmill, then consider condensing the hard work of a longer ride into a quick few minutes of discomfort with short intervals or a few longer high-aerobic efforts. Basically, if you can’t train for 2 or 3 or 4 hours, then focusing on intensity will do the most for your fitness in the least amount of time. You’ll engage your muscles at a high level, create more metabolic stresses on your body, and get your heart and lungs to work at a high level. Basically, you’ll train your nervous system, your mitochondria, and your cardio-pulmonary systems at a high level for a short time, yielding far more improvements in your fitness than if you were to just do a steady session of “endurance” or “conversational” paced training for 30-40 min.

Consider the following workout suggestions to squeeze in a decent amount of training in a short period of time:

  • 10-15m steady to get warmed up
  • 5-10m alternating steady with some tempo or short accelerations to get ready to ride hard
  • workout (do one of the following):
    • 2-4 sets 5×30 sec hard, 30 sec easy
    • 2×3 min threshold, 4-6×1 min hard/maximal, 2-3 min easy between
    • 2×4 min threshold, 2×2 min VO2/hard, 2m easy
    • 3-4×6-8 min tempo easing into threshold, finishing the effort as it becomes highly uncomfortable, 2 min easy
    • 4 min threshold, 8×20 sec hard, 40 sec easy, 4 min threshold, 2 min VO2/hard, 2 min easy between efforts or sets
    • 6-8 min tempo, 2×2 min VO2, 4-6 min threshold, 6×30 sec hard, 30 sec easy, 2 min easy between efforts or sets
  • 5-10m easy spinning to cool down

If you’re tight on time, and you’re trying to develop your high-end fitness more, then try to get in more intense workouts if you can and make sure that you have a bit of a snack or meal after your workouts, nothing crazy, but just a few calories, some protein, and fluids will be good. If you’re trying to focus more in building endurance, but you’re tight on time and can’t work out that long, then you may experiment with training in the morning before you eat breakfast, skipping breakfast and training on your lunch hour, and/or limiting your carbohydrate intake a couple of days each week… all of these things will encourage your body to be in a hormonal state that favors fat metabolism and mitochondria production (i.e it encourages general aerobic/endurance fitness). If you rely on a high-carbohydrate diet all of the time, and you aren’t training at a high volume, you’re giving yourself a handicap by preventing your body from ever having to fully develop better fat-burning capabilities. If you’re a professional athlete or have a very flexible schedule and can train 4-6 hours a couple times a week or get in 20 hour training weeks, then you’ll be training at least several hours each week with relatively low glycogen. But, if you’re training 1-1.5 hours 3-4 days/week and 2-3 hours once per week, then you’re never really requiring your body to work out much or at all in a glycogen depleted state, which is perhaps the most significant stressor that makes us develop better endurance and increases our fat-burning capacity.

Don’t worry, just try to get it done. Even if you just carve out 30 minutes every day or every other day to do something, you’ll be way ahead of where you’d be without that 30 minutes, and it’s something that most of us can make time for.