How Ironman Competitors Fit in Training (And You Can, Too)

How Ironman Competitors Squeeze in Training (And You Can Too)

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Some days, exercise fits easily into your life. You wake up before your alarm goes off, stroll off to a morning group-cycling class, shower and get to the office with a few minutes to spare. Other days, merely stepping out of bed seems like a struggle, let alone maintaining your sanity through the workday, cooking a real dinner or making it to the gym.

For most people, working out on the reg isn’t always a breeze. Just ask the ladies and gents who — on top of their day jobs and commitments to family and friends — take on training for an Ironman. (That requires completing a two-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and finishing with a marathon-distance run.) Gearing up for one of these triathlons is the ultimate time-suck, requiring hours in the pool, on the bike and in running shoes. Sometimes it even means twice-daily sessions and six- to seven-hour workouts on the weekends.

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With that kind of time commitment, you can imagine squeezing in workouts involves some creativity, which this writer can attest to. While training for Ironman Florida in 2014, I brought my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles to a bachelorette party weekend. While I did an open-water swim in a pond, the other partygoers sat on the nearby dock drinking beer. (Talk about temptation to skip a workout!)

Of course, even if you’re not race training, finding time for just a few workouts a week can be tough — but it’s definitely doable. For tips on how to slip some sweat sessions into an already-jam-packed schedule, we turned to the non-pro Ironman competitors. They’ve learned to keep moving on top of full-time jobs, kids, social engagements and more. Follow their advice and you’ll never miss another workout!

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8 Tips to Fit in Exercise from Ironman Athletes

1. Become a Morning Person
Sorry, night owls, but pre-dawn hours are perfect for getting in a workout without letting it interfere with the rest of your day. Eric Burns, 46, who makes orthopedic braces for a living and is racing in the Ironman World Championships this weekend in Kona, Hawaii, regularly rolls out of bed at 4 a.m. so he can be on the bike path by 4:30. Stephanie Johnson, 34, a yoga instructor in Chicago with two young sons, trained for last year’s Ironman Arizona early in the morning or late at night. “I had to squeeze in my bike rides when my kids were sleeping,” she says.

“It’s about training smart versus just training hard.”

2. Stash Your Stuff
While putting together your gym essentials, outfit and pre-workout snack at night in prep for your morning workout helps, you can also set yourself up for success later in the day. For instance, Johnson keeps her swim gear, running shoes, packets of almond butter and Gatorade in her car at all times. Then she can squeeze in exercise whenever she has some spare time.

Elisette Carlson, 40, founder of Smack Media in San Diego, psyches herself up for a 5 a.m. awakening — before she even goes to bed — by packing up her gear. “I make sure I have everything ready so I can just get up and go,” says the Ironman Coeur d’Alene finisher who has also completed several half Ironman races. “That way I’m very fast at getting out the door.” It’s her easy trick to avoid hitting snooze, too.

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3. Invest in At-Home Gear
A key piece of equipment for triathletes: a bike trainer — a frame for your road bike that lets you ride indoors. Johnson used her trainer constantly while gearing up for Ironman, so she could fit in rides when she was home alone with her sons. When she had a four- or five-hour bike ride on the schedule but couldn’t leave home, Johnson would do the whole ride on her trainer in the driveway while the kids played outside. The whole family getting active outdoors? We call that a win-win.

4. Swap Your Happy Hour Plans
Make exercise dates with loved ones so your workouts stop feeling like drudgery and start becoming something you look forward to, suggests Burns. “If you go out there and focus on spending time with friends and working out and getting to travel, it’s not that hard to wake up in the morning to train,” he says. “If you can focus on the fact that this is something you enjoy, it’s easier to find the time.”

It’s also a good idea to get work meetings done on a run or in a fitness studio, instead of the typical conference room or restaurant. Carlson calls this sweat-working: “If I need to plan a meeting with someone, instead of a coffee or lunch date I’ll say, ‘Let’s do a lunch run or go for a bike ride.’” It kills two birds with one stone, plus the other person holds you accountable, says Carlson.

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5. Make Your Workouts More Efficient
You’ve heard that HIIT gets more done in less time, well, the same goes for any workout where you cut down on rest time. Streamlining your routine is crucial, says Doug Dunbar, 52, news anchor at CBS11 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Dunbar says while prepping to race in Kona this weekend, he typically did his brick workouts (aka when you stack two workouts, like a bike ride and a run, often with a long rest in between) back-to-back with zero breaks. “Doing this is a time saver. It gets the workouts done faster and truly mimics the race experience,” he says.

“So many things can steer the bus off course. But the true mark of your training is how you react.”

6. Get in the Game
Frisbee throwing doesn’t necessarily count as tough exercise, but there are ways to get a good workout in while spending time with family. For example, Carlson tags along to her son’s swim practices and occasionally jumps into another lane to do laps herself. Similarly, Johnson invites her son to ride his scooter alongside her as she runs. Find something you can do with your loved one (or at least, an activity you can be doing at the same time) and you’ll find you’re more likely to stick to it.

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7. Reshuffle Your Schedule
No matter how much we plan, sometimes obligations pop up and you have to adjust. Instead of using last-minute meetings as an excuse to skip a workout, though, just do a little rearranging. When Burns has a work trip scheduled during his bike training, he swaps it for a run. (After all, sneakers are the best tool for a workout on the road.) Most, if not all, Ironman competitors say being flexible is key. “So many things can steer the bus off course,” says Dunbar. “But the true mark of your training is how you react. Pick up the pieces and keep moving forward.” Got sidetracked all day? Do a mini HIIT workout before dinner.

8. Don’t Force It
Despite all the tricks to try to eek a workout into your crazy schedule, sometimes you need a day off. “You’re going to have a few days where you aren’t feeling it. Just listen to your body,” Dunbar says. “You’ll never lose fitness in one missed session or day. It’s about training smart versus just training hard.” Permission to sleep in every now and then — granted!