As a parent and someone who likes to dabble in endurance sports here and there, I have first hand experience of trying to juggle training and family commitments. And often I don’t get that balance right. (Usually I fall into the “too little training” camp).
The thing is, I’m not alone in my inability to balance. I’ve been party to many a conversation over the last couple of years in which people have lamented the difficulty of balancing work, life, training and racing. In the spirit of making my blog a bit more informative instead of using it just for self indulgent race reports, I’ve taken the unprecedented step of doing some research. I want to see what can be learned from the behaviors of others so that I can offer some wisdom to other hapless individuals like me who believe they haven’t got the balance right yet.
The Internet is a great thing. Through the simplicity of online survey tools and a few groups on Facebook, I’ve targeted a simple survey at three groups of athletes: a community of Ultra and Trail runners who regularly run extreme distances in the name of fun; Triathletes at my local triathlon club who need to train for three sports at a time; and a local grass roots running group which includes some seasoned and some not so seasoned runners.
The purpose of the survey was to gain some insight into how other parents strike the balance between training and family commitments.
The numbers bit
As you might imagine with a survey like this, there are interesting things that can be gleaned from the basic statistics alone. In the case of this survey, here are some of the facts and figures from the survey response data as at 28th January 2017.
- Respondents were 65% female and 35% male
- The predominant age category for respondents was 40 to 49 (49%) with the 30 to 39 bracket not far behind (44%). 18 to 29 year olds were third (5%) and the 50 to 59 category had the smallest turnout (2%)
- 60% of respondents had 2 children. 24% had 1 child. 9% had 3 children. The “Five or more children” and “No Children” categories both received 4% each
- Age groups of children were 6 to 10 (59%), 0 to 5 (49%), 11 to 15 (35%), 16 to 20 (9%), Grown up and left home (2%)
- Participation in sports was a real spread as is to be expected. The survey went out to runners and triathletes, some of whom have additional hobbies. 98% of the respondents identified themselves as runners, but there was high number of cyclists, swimmers, martial artists and water / winter sports enthusiasts too
- By far the preferred time of day to train is early morning, followed by morning, evening, lunch break, late at night then afternoon
- The number of hours that respondents train during the week rated as 6 to 10 hours (60%), 1 to 5 hours (24%) and 11 to 19 hours (16%)
From these numbers, I find I’m left with more questions than answers. Do more women than men worry about their training levels and hence their interest in participating in the survey? Do those aged between 30 and 49 really have much busier lives than other demographics? Do the 50-59 demographic not exercise that much? Have I really just backed up the stereotypical 2.4 children in a family with this survey? Is it realistic to expect any more than 6 to 10 hours of training when you have a family? Why is afternoon not a popular time to train?
I think these questions require more time and maybe more analysis, but I am interested to see that in some cases, the numbers support some of my own held beliefs about training.
I’ve maintained for a while that early morning before the family are awake is the best time to train from an “impact on family” perspective. It seems that many other respondents subscribe to this theory too.
Whilst the percentages from the closed questions in the survey are interesting, it’s the open, narrative based questions that offer the most insight…
Factors influencing training
It seems that there are many reasons why people find balancing training and family commitments hard. Respondents to the survey were asked to state what factors influenced the time they train. The diagram below shows a summary of the themes arising.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that influence participation in training. Some of them are obvious but others less so. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting factors.
Yes, most of us (unless we are really fortunate, or retired) have to go to work. Mortgages do not pay themselves after all. From the responses in the survey, work can have both positive AND negative connotations. Many people see work as a restriction on the time that they have available to train, but one respondent cited that their employer understood the benefit of having a healthy workforce and allowed 1 hour out of the working day to be used for exercise purposes – surely a great plus if you are a sporty type. Other work places have gyms or put on sporting activities for the workforce to take part in – a handy perk to have, if your employer offers it.
Partners and Childcare
Partners can make or break our training plans. Where a partner is supportive, that is indeed a great thing but sometimes they are not. Even when you have a supportive partner, the chances are that they also have outside interests: work, social life etc and their needs are just as important as yours. They won’t always be available to pick up the childcare mantle.
Some people have childcare arrangements nearby with friends or relatives on hand to help. Others are not that fortunate and cannot get the kiddie cover required to pursue training to the extent that they would like.
Not only do children have to go to school, they also have social lives. And oh boy, do they have social lives. Parties, clubs, sporting interests of their own, often with a parent taxi driver requirement to ensure attendance. All these factors of a child’s social existence goes to lessen the time available to train
Availability of other resources
In this case, other resources includes people, facilities and races. It’s quite obvious that if you are attending club training sessions or going to a local swimming pool, the times that you train are tied in to a specific schedule. If other things conflict with that schedule, chances are you may well miss your session.
There are lots of personal factors that can get in the way. Tiredness, lack of motivation to train in bad weather (or at all), self discipline, even insomnia and guilt all appeared in the survey output. Humans are complicated beasts. Sometimes we are the very reason for our inability to do things, even though we like to apportion blame elsewhere.
Strategies for getting your exercise fix
So with the reasons for training impact considered (and hopefully a bit better understood), it’s time to think about cunning strategies for ensuring you get enough training to smash your exercise goals. The diagram below shows a summary of techniques used by survey respondents to ensure that they get the training they need.
Planning, Scheduling and Communication
Following a training plan is clearly helpful from the point of view of developing our physical state. Planning our training alongside family plans is a great way of balancing the two worlds. Planning in itself can be as simple as writing up a schedule on a calendar or drafting a to do list, but some people take this a stage further. One respondent to the survey reported using a shared Google calendar to ensure all family members can see and update what each other are doing.
Communiction with ones significant others is important too. Working with a partner to prioritise training versus other tasks really helps. It’s also important to create time on the schedule for family specific activities.
Integration of Training and Family
A clever way of getting training and family aligned is to integrate the two. This could include things like running with a stroller or baby buggy, or training with the kids. You could even try taking the dog for a run instead of its regular walk.
Some respondents reported that they often carry out their own training whilst the kids are doing some form of exercise of their own. Kids are at swimming? Drop them off and go for a run.
Another nice touch is to organise a family activity like a lunch or outing, then use different ways to get there: the athlete in training can run or cycle to the venue whilst the partner and children can travel separately. This ensures some training AND some nice family time to follow (just remember to take a backpack of spare clothes and some deodorant!)
Timing and Flexibility
Timing your training is one of the factors that survey respondents had much to say about. For many, training early in the morning before the family are awake is the silver bullet solution. For others, training later at night after the family are in bed is the way to go.
Scheduling training around childcare or school hours seems to be a popular strategy, but is not something that works too well for working parents. Those people who work can get their training fix by incorporating a run or cycle to and from work, or training in the lunch hour.
Several respondents reported the need to just fit training in when they can. Short, sharp run efforts or sessions on the turbo trainer can be valuable when pressed for time.
Wrapping it all up
Yes, balancing training and family is hard. But there are options to make it easier. Quite a lot of options it seems. It’s really important that however you choose to balance the two, you don’t beat yourself up if you find it doesn’t go to plan. Life has a way of surprising us. Whatever training you do manage to do is going to help you achieve your goals.
If you’ve got strategies not mentioned here, or you’ve got thoughts on this subject, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment below and I’ll get back to you.