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How to fit marathon training into a busy lifestyle

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Training for a marathon is a big time commitment, and even the best planned program can be derailed when life gets in the way. My toughest year of running recently, when none of my programs when to plan, was also the year that I moved house and changed jobs. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about the best ways to fit marathon training in with life. Here are my tips:

Prioritise the marathon – this could be easier said than done as everyone places different levels of importance on running. Stress can have a negative impact on your training, and you might find yourself working hard on your runs and feeling like you are not improving. If you can, avoid having too much on your plate during your marathon training.

When I starting training for the Berlin marathon, I was struggling with a long commute to work, and considered looking for something closer to home. I decided that adding something to my ‘to do’ list which required quite a bit of time and effort would be more draining that the commute. If things like these can wait until after your race, it will minimise the number of things you are trying to focus on. When deciding which race to enter, think about what you might have coming up at work, if you are planning any holidays, or if you have any big life events on the horizon. You might find that you enjoy the process more if running can be your priority while you are marathon training.

Make some sacrifices – this might be the hardest one, because it’s not easy to do. I don’t like saying that I can’t meet for a late dinner because I have to be up at 5am to run, or that I can’t do a new activity because it clashes with training. Once I turned down a snowboarding weekend with my dad because I was worried about getting injured, then fractured my foot in a race a couple of weeks later!! It’s probably a good life lesson in general that you can’t do everything all at once, but it’s especially true when doing something as demanding as marathon training. And the good news is, once your race is over, you can relax, celebrate, and do some of the things you might have missed out on during your training!

Involve your friends and family – if entering a marathon means that you might be a preoccupied with running, find ways to share it with the important people in your life. You could make parkrun a family affair, invite people to support you or watch on the day or pick an event away from home to make a short holiday out of it. Don’t forget to share your training schedule with your family so they know what days you are running, when your alarm is going to go off early, and when you might be likely to fall asleep on the couch at 8pm.

Be realistic – if you are starting with a coach, or picking a plan to follow, be honest about how often each week you can realistically run. There is no point saying you want to do six days, when your schedule will only reasonably allow for three. You can find a program or a coach that will work to your lifestyle, and you will be a lot more likely to stick with it.

Run in the morning – I have NEVER been a morning person. To me, being up early on a weekend was around 10am. When I started marathon training, I could handle the early Sundays, but still did most of my other training at night. Slowly this started to shift to the point where I only really do one run a week in the evening. Given that I work an hour from home, these can be quite early starts. There were a few reasons why I changed, but the main one was how hard it had become to get home from work at 6pm in winter, put on my running clothes and head out for 90 minutes when it was cold and dark. This meant getting home at 8pm, usually eating around 8:30pm. It would take me a bit of time after that to wind down, by which point my partner had probably fallen asleep (he would have run in the morning). It started to feel like I didn’t get much of an evening.

There were a few other things that contributed to running in the morning, like eating too much at work afternoon teas and enjoying the feeling of not having to do anything at night. But the biggest thing about getting out in the morning it that your run is done before potential interruptions throughout the day can occur. You might leave work late, miss the bus, have your train cancelled, get distracted by the TV or just get too comfy on the couch. If your run is done in the morning, none of these things matter.

Switch sessions for steady runs if you’re feeling tired – if you’ve had a bad day at work, didn’t sleep well or are feeling heavy because you didn’t stretch after your long run, you might feel a sense of dread knowing you have a hard interval session scheduled. Consistency is key with marathon training. However there might be times that you are already feeling drained, and pushing through a session might not achieve much. If that happens, switch your session for a steady run. It’s better to get out and do something you can manage than push yourself too hard.

Make it a habit and stick to it – when an unexpected interruption occurs that can change your routine, such as a late night or needing to get into work early, it might be hard to fit in a run. When I am getting back into running after a break, I usually find myself pressing the snooze button multiple times despite good intentions to get up and run. I have found that making myself get up, even for a shorter run than I intended, goes a long way to re-creating the habit. Once it’s part of your routine, it’s a lot easier to wake up a bit earlier when you need to start extending the runs.

The same goes for when I find myself having a tough week. There will be times when you are low on motivation or just don’t feel like running. You might have just stayed up too late watching TV or had a mid-week glass of wine. Getting out and doing something, even if it’s a short run, will help you maintain the habit. I can’t stress enough how important consistency is for marathon training, and if skipping a run is an option once, it will be an option again. While missing a run here and there is not the end of the world, it will start to impact your marathon if that becomes the habit. If I’m hitting snooze and running short on time, I will still go out for half an hour to keep myself in routine as much as possible.

If you find it hard to make a habit stick, start small. Identify the days that you have available to train, and do a short run on each of them. Then do exactly the same the next week, and the week after that. Once it starts to become automatic, you can think about making the runs longer or introducing sessions.

Develop a pattern with your runs – a good way to make a habit stick is by allocating a specific session to each day. It means you need to find other ways to mix it up if you start to get bored, but for the purpose of making something routine, it’s easiest if you wake up every day knowing that Monday is recovery day, Wednesday is a steady run, Thursday is intervals and Friday is relaxing with after work drinks. It means you don’t have to think too much about what you need to do, and helps with consistency.

Arrange to meet someone – this is not something new or ground-breaking, but I’ll repeat it anyway. It’s always easier to get out and run if you know someone is waiting for you. The 5.30am starts still scare me, but I can drag myself out if I know I have a friend waiting, and I always feel better for it afterwards. There have been times when I’ve had to go solo, slept in and done something shorter, then had to do extra later. It’s not nearly as nice as knowing it’s all done and that I can relax!

Improvise – if you have things on that you need to work around, see if you can be creative with fitting your runs in. It might be that you do your long run to end up somewhere instead of a loop from home, or look up a local running group to find a place to run while you’re away for a weekend. When I trained for the Berlin marathon, some friends invited us to watch a football game on a weeknight in Bondi. I didn’t want to miss out, so I did my run to the pub we were meeting, and showered at a friend’s house nearby. Did they think I was crazy? Probably, but it meant I got my run in and didn’t have FOMO.

Adjust your social schedule – ideally you don’t want to abandon your friends when you are training for a marathon. You might be tired all the time, and not up for a night out before your long run, but see if you can find other ways to fit in your training and social life. Try to keep social activities for the weekends if you are tight for time, ask if you can meet friends earlier in the evening, or for lunch instead of dinner. If all else fails, hang out with runners so you can have conversations about losing toenails and pre-race bathroom routines.

Have fun – you want to enjoy your race, and that is most likely to happen if you get a good block of training in. If you are finding that you just have too much on to fit in your training runs, remember there will always be another race. After all, this is something we choose to do because we like running, it's supposed to be fun!

Me after the Berlin marathon in 2016
Running a marathon is a big achievement. Fitting the training into your life is half the battle!

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