Fueling and Training for the Time-Starved Athlete

You only have a limited amount of time. What are the steps you can take to make sure you’re using that time to train to your best potential?

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No one has unlimited time. So how do you make the most of your time to be the best athlete you can? We previously talked about what you should cut first when you don’t have time, but let’s get into more details about how to make the most of your training in a busy life.

Here’s a step-by-step how-to-guide for laying out an airtight training and diet plan you can attain without having other areas of your life fall apart, and still make real performance gains in training. 

Step 1: Identify and ruthlessly eliminate anything that does not directly add value to your life.

There are a number of common time sucks. Start by evaluating how much of your time and energy is being used on these things:

  1. Scrolling social media and unintentional internet use. Blindly scrolling is not a mental break. It is your brain being played like a rodent seeking a dopamine hit. 
  2. Coping unproductively with one’s own stress. I tend to jump from one challenging or frustrating task to another and back, having made no progress, because of inadequately managing my personal response to stress. Do not underestimate the value of counseling.
  3. Cooking individual meals every meal, or dining out. It is faster to batch prep!
  4. Idle, unintentional, or unrewarding conversation that enriches neither person’s life. Practice politely wishing someone well and moving onto your higher value life tasks. 
  5. Commuting without spending that time on something valuable—which may not be a big challenge in 2020. Call your family and friends. Process voicemails. Connect with clients. Grow professionally and personally with podcasts or audiobooks. 

Only after you’ve made the most efficient use of your time should you worry about whether you’re a time-starved athlete or not. 

Step 2: Take inventory.

Here’s where you’re probably spending your time:

  • Intentional high-value time with people you care about
  • Non-sporting activities that bring you joy
  • Productive work — things that make money now or increase future earnings
  • Sleep
  • Life management tasks: chores, errands, medical tasks, life planning and financial to-dos

Let’s be honest, we’re all going to fall a little short of how much time we would like to spend with the important people in our lives and probably short on fun activities as well, so it’s safe to assume that you’re not currently “overspending” on your intentional time with other people or doing non-training things that bring you true joy. More productive work, which earns you more money, may buy you more time off or more freedom to do what you love in the future, so it’s hard to knock that.

Don’t, however, underestimate your ability to get faster and more efficient at basic life management. It is worth the input of energy to save steps and your valuable time.

That leaves sleep. It’s probably against your best interests to impose any limit on your sleeping for the purpose of fitting more training in. 

As much as you might occasionally like to cut out productive work, sleep, intentional time with people, and basic life management necessities, doing less of them is likely to eventually lead to serious negative tradeoffs that would further reduce your ability to train and race. 

Let’s then evaluate your training and racing time:

Failing to initially take stock of all of the components of training for and racing in triathlon is probably the biggest failure I see among triathletes who end up unhappy at some point during their seasons. This failure leads to playing catch-up throughout the season as they remember each of the things that they will additionally need to manage.  

Laying out a swim, bike, and run training plan, and making it fit into your calendar is one thing. But two months from now when you decide “I’m getting a little stiff and feel like I should be doing some strength training,” just adding those things into the mix, without realizing that other things need to be pulled back, is a recipe for disaster about 3-4 weeks later.

Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to maintain a bike or two, and plan and prepare all your training nutrition. Include that in the big-picture planning process and allot time for it on your personal calendar. You will be happier and more productive because you did. This includes:

  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Running
  • Resistance Training
  • Mobility/Flexibility work
  • Racing & Training Support Components:
      • Nutrition planning & execution
      • Bike maintenance
      • Race planning
      • Race Travel

Step 3: Decide how much to train.

One of the strongest determining factors in endurance performance is how much time you spend with an elevated heartrate. More training is generally better, to the extent that you can recover from it and stick to it. When people ask, “How much training is too much?,” the answer often boils down to: “How much time do you have and how much outside stress are you bringing to the table?” and “How much do you sleep?”  

It is not about how much training is too much. It’s about everything else. If you made the same amount of money you do now, but your only responsibility in life was to train, the answer would be drastically different from the actual answer right now for what is optimal with your current life constraints.  

In general, if you can find 12-15 spare hours on your calendar, you can fill half to two-thirds of that with weekly training and not pay the price for having bitten off more than you can chew. If you see what looks like wide open weekends and chunks of 3-4 hours on weekdays where you could fit training in, sure, you might be able to train 20-25 hours/week—if you were a robot and also had someone prepping all your equipment, bottles, etc. But you are not and you probably do not.

Working in your favor, endurance gains are non-linear. Meaning, your 20th hour of training is much less valuable than your fifth or sixth hour of training.

So, if you see 15 hours a week where you could insert some training in your open calendar, I might recommend more like 7-8 hours total training time to start. Ramp slowly upwards over 3-4 weeks and see what 9-10 hours feels like. Start very conservatively and work upwards very slowly until you feel you’re at your limit.

Step 4: Decide how hard to train.

Another factor working in your favor is the less time you train, the harder you can make each training session. You can get pretty similar results from a four-hour training week where virtually every minute is high heartrate quality work, compared to a six- to seven-hour training week where some of those hours are less productive.

There is indeed benefit from doing more easy work. Huge benefits. But if it’s at the cost of your sleep, then those fitness benefits vanish, usually as a result of reduced training quality and consistency.  

It may well serve you better to plan for 30- to 60-minute sessions where heartrate stays consistently high after a very brief warm-up, rather than plan a two-hour Zone 2 effort. If you’re racing long, eventually you’ll need to develop the volume tolerance for longer work and practice your nutrition for longer training and racing, but many months of productive work can be had with less—if you make it hard.  

Going hard in virtually every session only works in triathlon, as compared to running, and only when you are doing each discipline one or maybe two times per week. You can easily do 1-2 hard swims, two hard bikes, and one hard run, weekly, and if you’re only doing 4-5 sessions per week, then it’s a good idea to make the intensity of each training session pretty honest to get maximum performance on a time budget. Orthopedic risk is highest with running, so be more cautious there.

Step 5: Organize your training.

The hardest sessions should happen earlier in the day, if possible. Never right before bed. If you can organize your work week to allow one or two mornings off or with a break in the morning for a more intense session that is usually more optimal for training than a roll-out-of-bed high-intensity workout.

Afternoon or early evening harder sessions are OK if you know it won’t increase sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep), and they would be better than a first-thing training if you know yourself to be a person who needs a good pre-workout meal and some time to wake up. If you’re an early riser, and you don’t mind hitting the intensity in the first hour of your day and you can fuel the workout with some ultra-quick carbs in mostly fluid form, then that’s a great option if midday or mid-morning training isn’t an option. 

Schedule your recovery training sessions or easy aerobic work for immediately upon waking.  

Example training week: Two runs, two swims, two bikes, one resistance training

  • Monday: Recovery run, first thing. Quick carbs in fluid form as you walk out the door. Carb-rich meal/shake afterwards.
  • Tuesday: High-intensity swim workout, completed after breakfast and an hour of work.
  • Wednesday: Short bike interval workout, completed after breakfast and an hour of work.
  • Thursday: Off.
  • Friday: Easier swim workout, upon waking. Fuel with quick carbs in fluid form. Carb-rich meal/shake immediately after.
  • Saturday: Harder or longer run. Complete after breakfast or soon after lunch.  
  • Sunday: Harder or longer ride. Complete after breakfast or soon after lunch.  Resistance training immediately after.

Still too much training to squeeze in? Cut out the easier sessions in your best discipline first. Cut out resistance training next. Lifted a lot in the past?  Cut out resistance training first instead. Tired of swimming? Joy is important. Cut back to one swim per week and swim harder and longer in that one session.

Step 6: Master Nutritional Efficiency

  1. If training first thing, then fuel with carbs in fluid form only. Skip solid breakfast. 
  2. If eating a solid meal with carbs 1.5-2.5 hours pre-training and training is under 75 minutes long, skip intra-workout fueling.
  3. Always eat a mixed meal of moderate protein, higher carbs, and lower-fat foods immediately after every training session.
  4. Learn how to calculate carb, protein, and fat needs and plan each week in advance, or just use something like the RP Endurance Macro Calculator (EMC) to calculate your daily macro needs for you, based on the specific training you’re doing. Remember, if you are within 10-20% of your actual needs, daily, you are doing great. Do not use a food scale!
  5. Use every longer session as your race-fueling rehearsal. Carbs, sodium, and fluid should be your only considerations. Stick to something cheap and easy to purchase in large quantities. Add table sugar for better glucose-to-fructose ratio and quickly customizable carb, sodium, and fluid ratios. Table salt or sodium citrate can be added, too. Store measuring cups/spoons in the bags or near your bottle storage.
  6. Caffeine tablets are cheaper and more time-efficient than other caffeinated supplements and can be quickly split in half for smaller doses: 1.5-3.0 mg/kg is a great place to start for pre-training.
  7. Skip supplements. Beet root, beta-alanine, citrulline malate etc., might all provide small endurance benefits but are almost certainly not worth your time if you are always up against the clock.

Bringing It Home: Build Your Time and Efficiency

Remember, you can and will get more efficient with everything. Start off consistently with smaller weekly training hours, truly master it, and ramp upwards very conservatively. You might look back two years from now and wonder what all the fuss was about!

Dr. Alex Harrison, a certified USA Triathlon coach, holds a PhD in Sport Physiology and Performance. He is the author of The RP Diet for Endurance and more than a dozen articles. When he isn’t pumping out training and nutrition plans in his RV-garage-turned-mobile-office, he can be found on his bike, clinging for dear life to his wife’s wheel.