How to fit training into a hectic lifestyle

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Between work, family and social obligations, life can sometimes feel like a game of Tetris – so many moving pieces and a limited amount of time to fit them into the right places. If you tell yourself you’ll run whenever you have a free moment, you may rarely get out at all – and when you do, you won’t be reaping the benefits of a more thought-out approach. ‘A training plan gives you direction and structure,’ says Mackenzie Madison, a professional triathlete and coach. ‘It brings variety, too, so you’re not doing the same thing every day.’

Variation has physical benefits as well. Research shows picking up the pace for short sections provides extra cardiovascular benefits and can aid weight loss. Adding weight training can help prevent injuries and improve bone density. Your training plan can keep you from overdoing it, since rest and hard efforts will be in balance. And it can give you confidence that you can bring to your next race.

Coaches and commercially available training plans are good ways to add structure to your routine, but a DIY approach can be very effective, too. If you follow a few basic guidelines you should be able to plan your own training or adjust an existing plan to fit your lifestyle.

1/ Plot three good days

‘Three quality days a week is how much a person needs to run to improve,’ says running coach Cliff Latham. ‘If you’re doing a long run one day, a tempo run another day and intervals on a third day, you’ll see improvement.’ And that doesn’t just mean faster race times: these workouts ramp up calorie-burning, boost overall health and make you a more confident runner.

Long runs build endurance and mental toughness, and you don’t have to go very long to benefit. Latham says that athletes who aren’t training for a half marathon or longer can make eight miles their limit. Build your distance slowly, adding no more than a mile a week, and keep the pace easy. Many runners plan long runs for the weekend, when most of us have more time.

Rushed weekdays are great for interval runs: a 2012 review of studies found that interval training reduced the risk of high blood pressure, while a 2015 study found subjects who included bursts of speed kept burning calories at a higher-than-normal rate post-run. Intervals can last from 30 seconds to a mile, with periods of walking or jogging between ‘on’ periods. The effort should feel hard but not all-out – near 5K pace.

Tempo runs – sustained efforts at a comfortably hard pace – blend the endurance-boosting properties of long runs with the speed-developing properties of intervals. Tempo runs train your body and brain to turn up the pace and keep it there. If you choose to run on the other four days of the week, go at an easy pace.

2/ Build in breaks

It’s almost impossible to give a blanket recommendation for how much rest you’ll need. ‘It depends on age, experience and whether you’re injury-prone or not,’ says running coach Jennifer Harrison. ‘A good rule is don’t run two hard days back to back.’ (Long run days count as hard days, even though the pace is easy.)

Also, know that a rest day doesn’t mean you have to be totally slothful. Harrison, who coaches triathletes, says some of her athletes swim on rest days. In a 2010 study, triathletes who swam after a hard interval run were able to run stronger than those who rested in a ‘time to fatigue’ test the next day. And don’t worry if swimming isn’t your thing – Latham’s athletes practise other forms of active recovery, such as yoga, walking or going for a bike ride. But take at least one day a week completely off from exercise – two, if you’re starting out, injury-prone or susceptible to mental burnout.

3/ Add time to ease in (and out)

It can be tempting to jump right into your workout, but Madison says that’s a bad idea. Your body needs at least 15 minutes to increase blood flow to major muscle groups. Also, a 2012 study found that athletes who performed a dynamic warm-up had more hamstring flexibility and quad strength than those who did no warm-up. Increased flexibility helps protect against injuries, especially when you’re doing intervals or running at tempo pace. Consider starting workouts – especially hard ones – with jogging and plyometrics to activate key running muscles.

Madison says that early morning runners in particular need warm-up time, since we move very little when we sleep. But coach Joe McConkey says evening runners aren’t off the hook: ‘You’ve been sitting all day, so you may need a longer warm-up – particularly before high-intensity work.’ He has his athletes do 10-15 minutes of jogging plus a few drills and dynamic stretches (such as high knees) before beginning the fast portion of a workout.

Don’t forget to cool down. ‘When we’re working hard, all systems are firing, but when we suddenly stop, these systems slam on the brakes without letting our bodies return to normal,’ says Madison. Jog for a few minutes after a hard workout, then walk. Build in at least 10 minutes after interval or tempo runs, though Madison says you can use the final mile or two of a long or easy run to start the cool-down process.

4/ Set aside strength time

Madison’s athletes do two hour-long strength-training sessions a week, plus three sessions of core training. (That can mean simply doing a few planks, leg lifts and crunches after a run.) She recommends dedicating one weight-training day to building power with drills and plyometrics – such as walking lunges and box jumps – while the other should be used to work on general body strength.

Prioritise the core work. If you can fit in only one strength session a week, focus on power one week and strength and stability the next. Latham says that if you’re truly time-starved, try fewer reps with heavy weights. Doing as few as four reps with the most weight you can manage builds strength quickly.

When you do your strength training is a matter of personal preference. If you do it after a tough workout, you can take the next day off. ‘But, mentally, that can be hard,’ says Latham. If the choice is doing it on your easy day or not doing it at all, do it on your easy day.

5/ Take time to recover

To feel your best on all your runs, help your body to rebuild between sessions. ‘Make sure you eat a protein-rich snack after you run,’ says Madison, especially after hard workouts or runs lasting longer than an hour.

Also, try to get enough sleep – however much you need to wake feeling rested – as well as time with your foam roller. ‘Foam rolling works out the scar tissue that we all have in our muscles, ‘ says Madison. Focus mainly on your lower body – the quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes and IT bands.

Harrison recommends rolling for 15-20 minutes a day. At a minimum, try to get in five minutes every day and do longer sessions after tough workouts.

6/ Train to race

If you’re targeting a race, try to start most of your long runs at the time of day your race will begin. Harrison says you should do one or two dress rehearsal runs in the weeks leading up to the taper to test what you’ll eat the day before and morning of the race, how you’ll fuel and what you’ll wear.

Your pace on these runs should mimic race day, at least for a few miles, says Madison. You’ll learn a lot: for example, pre-run porridge might work for you on easy days, but if your stomach revolts when you speed up, you’ll be glad to know that in advance.

When to start your taper is a personal choice, says McConkey. Some half and full marathoners taper for a few weeks, while 5K and 10K runners need less taper time. ‘It should be shorter volume and more rest, but with the intensity still high,’ says McConkey. Do fewer, shorter reps at your usual pace during speed sessions. Harrison has her athletes do only four repeats ‘so they can keep that snap and not exhaust their legs’, she says. ‘The key is to keep muscle memory and snap alive.’