When In A Time Crunch, What Should You Cut?

Sometimes our schedules are simply too packed. How do you decide where to trim time and what to cut back on?

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Life can feel crazy—and sometimes it feels crazier than others. Ultimately, wisdom will come from years of trying to balance triathlon, work, family, and life, and from being the person who occasionally needs to pare things back, but an understanding of the physiology at play can be a valuable tool in deciding where something gives in your training and schedule.

Before you consider cutting something like training, sleep, family time, or work from your calendar, first:

  1. Identify and ruthlessly eliminate anything that does not directly add value to your life. If you are wasting time somewhere, find out where, find out when and why, and work diligently to get rid of it.
  2. Do not underestimate your ability to get faster and more efficient at basic life management tasks either. It’s worth small inputs of time and energy now to save your valuable time tomorrow! Almost everything can be done more efficiently.

Assuming core life pieces like work, family time, and the exceptionally rare non-sport-related social gathering are off the table, then that leaves the following from which to cut when the calendar just gets too full:

  1. Sleep
  2. Swimming
  3. Biking
  4. Running
  5. Resistance and strength training
  6. Mobility work
  7. Nutrition or meal planning & execution
  8. Bike and gear maintenance

RELATED: Want a step-by-step guide to managing your time and making the most of your training? Here you go.

Should I Cut Sleep?

Before you start setting the alarm earlier and earlier, a warning: Sleep loss does the following:

  1. Increases appetite/desire to eat
  2. Increases storage of fat on trunk
  3. Increases storage of fat all over
  4. Causes muscle loss
  5. Decreases training quality, intensity, and/or decision-making related to volume of training, all of which can compound the above

I can think of extremely limited scenarios where it is a good idea to get up earlier to squeeze a training session in. All of those limited scenarios involve making up the sleep loss ASAP. You absolutely can make up for lost sleep, but getting eight hours one night does not make up for getting five or six the nights before. Making up for sleep loss requires 10 or 11 hours of solid shuteye. If that is never going to be a reality for you, then do not plan on waking early unless you also go to bed early. You will pay it back in fatigue and poor training later.

Three Excuses to Cut Swimming First—You’re Welcome

  1. Of the three triathlon disciplines, swimming is the most dependent on technique and least dependent on cardiovascular fitness. Technique of any movement is likely to far outlast the fitness related to that movement when training momentarily ceases. That’s why that former collegiate swimmer who dropped into a lap swim for the first time in a decade was swimming circles around you.
  2. Swimming provides the least transfer of training to the other two disciplines because it provides the least cardiovascular stimulus. 
  3. Unless you swim at your house, the process of driving to the pool, changing, swimming, showering again, changing again, then driving somewhere else is the least time-efficient from the perspective of minutes of training stimulus per minute of time-cost.

If you are going to entirely cut or greatly reduce session frequency of a single discipline, swimming is often the best choice, especially now that many of us are constrained to occasionally awkward pool schedules.

When to Cut Running, Cycling, and Swimming Workouts

Were you a runner, cyclist, or swimmer before you did triathlon? If you can point to one sport as your personal background before starting triathlon, then that’s a great bet for a place to cut session length or session frequency when your schedule is overbooked. There are two reasons:

  1. You are already better at this, so more time working on it is likely to yield less performance improvement than the discipline in which you are less experienced. 
  2. You have been good at this for a long time, and the longer your body has been capable of a certain performance the longer it will naturally retain that ability without any specific training to do so. Homeostasis is working in your favor here, thanks to your long history in that one sport. Take advantage!

When to Cut Strength Training

Likewise, do you have a previous history of lifting weights? If you come from a strength-trained background, unless you are specifically rehabbing an injury via resistance training, your strength training for triathlon performance is largely accessory and should be the first thing to cut out. Like swimming, there is often a high time-cost per unit of benefit, and sometimes virtually no benefit for folks who have spent years in a gym already. Spend your crunch-time maintaining or building on aerobic fitness. (If you do not have a history in the gym and have weaknesses that are affecting your triathlon training, then this calculation is different.)

Should I Cut Eating Before Workouts?

Yes, training fasted can save time and is an option, but only for short and easy sessions. If you want training quality to be maintained throughout the rest of your week, then you’d be wise to fuel up with a high-carb meal post-training, and to include adequate fueling during any training session much over 90 minutes or that includes any intensity.

Cut Workout Volume Before Intensity

Cardiovascular endurance can be come by in a multitude of ways. The more cumulative time you spend at higher heartrates, the fitter you are going to get. If you are not cutting sleep, then reducing training session duration and frequency and just pushing the pace or intensity instead is a great way to be able to continue fitness growth with less total time spent training. Basically, you can just train harder. There will be a time and a place for those longer sessions, especially if you need to build volume for a longer race or lack that endurance history, but when life just hit the fan, it’s a good time to make it short and sweet.

So when things get crazy and time gets crunched, the best rule of thumb is to: Stay in bed and consider doing your easiest sessions as a roll-out-of-bed fasted session. Work to get more efficient at everything in your life so that you can fit it all in, but, when something must give, swimming and lifting are often good bets, as is your long-time favorite discipline. When in doubt, cut things out, and train a bit harder.

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, creator of the RP Endurance Macro Calculator, and has authored and contributed to dozens of 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.

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