Is Marathon Training Hurting Your Relationship?

Runner at Dawn
Photo: Pond5

When Lisa’s husband became interested in marathon running a couple decades ago, she wanted to support his healthy new hobby. She’d take care of their young son so he could fit in his long runs on weekends and travel with him to several races a year. “If you’re there for the pre-race pasta dinner and the post-race limp, you’re at least spending time together. My son and I wanted to share it with him,” says Lisa, a research specialist from Western Massachusetts.

“The spouse is almost as big of a contributor to the success of the athlete as the training.”

But over time, she says her husband’s constant training put a strain on their marriage. Several nights a week, when she wanted to connect with him and recount the details of her day, he was off for a run. The long Sunday workouts ate up half the day. “That’s time we weren’t spending as a family,” says Lisa who often referred to herself as a “marathon widow.” As for the rest of the evenings, her husband’s training often left him so exhausted he’d fall asleep within 20 minutes of watching a movie together.

RELATED: 10 Lessons Learned While Running 100 Marathons 

Lisa, an avid swimmer, tried to take up running but quickly gave it up when she hurt her knee. “He would talk about running all the time, but I couldn’t relate and felt left out,” she says. Last summer, after 21 years of marriage, the couple divorced. “I don’t think marathon training was the catalyst,” she says. “There were other issues, obviously. But did I resent the time he spent training and not being with me? Absolutely.”

Divorce by Triathlon

As the popularity of marathon and triathlon racing soars in the U.S., athletes often think of training as a personal challenge — a solitary pursuit to boost one’s self esteem or feeling of accomplishment. What’s often not recognized is the toll it takes on families and significant others.

“Everyone has to sacrifice,” explains Pete Simon, an Arizona sports psychologist and USA Triathlon certified coach who blogs about the phenomenon called ‘Divorce by Triathlon.’ “The spouse is almost as big of a contributor to the success of the athlete as the training. If they don’t go along with it — or pick up slack — then you’ve got problems.”

Not only do families have to adjust to an athlete’s absence during peak training, which often requires 15 to 20 hours a week for extreme races, his or her training affects them in other ways. Extended family visits, social engagements and shared bottles of wine go by the wayside. Then there’s the cost: $255 to run the New York City Marathon, $700 for an Ironman spot, upwards of $1,000 for travel and hotel accommodations, and another $1,000 or more for bikes, shoes, training and racing clothes and accessories. Never mind the price of coaching, gym and pool membership fees and nutrition, which can tack on thousands more. 

Lonely Runner
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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

“Extreme sports commitments become an issue when they become an obsession.”

For Steve and Kristine Kester of Duluth, Georgia, their challenge isn’t placating a neglected spouse. It’s juggling two packed racing and training schedules. “In the beginning when our kids were young, we made all the mistakes of over-committing between competitions, work, church, volunteering and our kids’ school activities and sports schedules,” says Kristine, a certified nurse practitioner and tri coach.

They became skillful jugglers: He’d fit in his weekday workouts at 4 a.m., and then she’d go at 7 a.m. when he got back. They’d each take a weekend day for longer workouts. Or he’d spend Sunday with the kids while she drove four hours for a one-hour race. But they missed out on time with each other. When Steve trained for two Ironman competitions two years in a row, date night became a rarity. “We were in over our heads and pledged to each other not to commit to anything unless we asked each other first,” says Kristine.

RELATED: 12 Keys to Achieving Work-Life Balance 

Now they make a list of all the races they want to do each year and agree that only one person can train for a big race at a time. Last month, Steve competed in Ironman Chattanooga (and qualified for the world championships in Kona, Hawaii in 2015), and Kristine volunteered in the medical tent and kept track of his gear.

“They call spouses ‘Iron Mates,’” says Steve, a private equity investor. “They help schlep your equipment, keep things in order at home, and listen to you whine for nine months.” 

With two kids in college and one in junior high, the couple now finds more time to work out together, including swimming in a master’s group. “I do wonder if she was doing all these races and I was working all the time if we would have had more conflict,” says Steve. “The fact that we both got into this in a big way at the same time probably helped us understand each other and everything we had to learn to do to make it all work.” 

Keeping the Peace

Relationship experts say that the key to preventing extreme training schedules from creating resentment is recognizing and appreciating a partner’s sacrifices. And, of course, supporting his or her hobbies in return. Here are some tips for getting through those tough training months. 

1. Compensate with quality time together. 
“You have to make sure you’re present with your partner,” explains Steven Stosny, a counselor in Washington D.C. and author of Living and Loving after Betrayal: How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, Deceit, Infidelity, and Chronic Resentment. “Extreme sports commitments become an issue when they become an obsession. It’s not so much the time athletes spend training. It’s also the time they’re thinking about it at home and not connecting with their families.”

2. Include them in everything.
Ask your partner to help you plan your schedule so he or she feels you’re being considerate of other family obligations, says Simon. If possible, invite a spouse to train with you. “Even if you’re at different levels, you can do a recovery ride with them or take the entire family on an open water swim,” he says. If your family isn’t athletically inclined, you can choose races at destinations they’d like to visit and make the trip into a mini-vacation. Bonus: Your favorite people cheering you on at the finish line.

3. Be flexible with training.
Simon suggests getting workouts out of the way first thing in the morning, or training smarter by doing higher intensity exercises that take less time. Athletes can also choose shorter races, such as half-marathons or sprint or Olympic-distance tris,  which are challenging but still allow you to have a personal life. “You don’t want to get to the point where your family is tired of you training and tired of you being gone,” he says. “Sometimes you have to aim for balance.”

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