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Special report: How to manage the athletics balancing act

Special report: How to manage the athletics balancing act

Juggling a job with the demands of training is never easy. Anna Boniface reports on the pressures faced by athletes

Friday February 5, 2016: 77 days to go until the marathon

“I’m already late rushing off the wards to get my handover for the weekend. Friday afternoons are always manic on the acute assessment unit of the specialist respiratory physiotherapy ward where I work. I’ve not had lunch. I normally stay to chat but I need to hurry off. I’m on-call Sunday night, so tonight is the only time I can fit my long run in.

“I’m only halfway through my 10-day week but I motivate myself to get my trainers on for the second run of the day. I run an uninspired 16 miles along the A40. My bag is heavy and my legs are tired from my track session last night. I can’t break 8-min mile pace. I manage 30 minutes of conditioning in the gym before running to the tube to go home. I’ve run 21 miles today. I eat my dinner and go to bed, hoping the weekend won’t be too busy.”

Weeks like this weren’t unusual leading up to my first marathon in 2016. Running was taking up more and more of my time since I made the decision to increase my mileage to step up to the longer distances.

Athletes’ juggle can be a struggle: Read part two of Boniface’s special report here

Two years ago I would finish somewhere in the middle of the pack at cross country races and my fastest park run was outside 20 minutes. But after 18 months of dedicating my life to running, I found myself running 2:45 on my debut marathon.

In the final four months leading up to London I was running 70-100 miles a week and working full time as a respiratory physiotherapist at a busy London teaching hospital. I was constantly running out of hours in the day. My life revolved around work and training. I had little free time for socialising and would use any opportunity to squeeze in every extra mile possible. Did I have the balance right? Probably not.

Juggling balls

Paula Radcliffe uses a great analogy of life balances being like juggling different balls. Some you can take more risks with, but others are fragile and you need to treat them with caution, not taking your eye off them.

The main issue is time and the difficult choices you must be willing to make to run 80 miles a week. “Ah, I can’t I’ve got to run,” was a regular excuse for not going out and socialising and without a training group, I would often run alone. The peak of my training was quite a lonely and isolating time for me.

On the treadmill

Sleep is one of the vital ingredients for recovery is also neglected. Waking up earlier and earlier to get more miles in or going to bed later to go to the gym after a track session. Add in life admin and trying to get eight hours’ sleep is nigh on impossible.

Admittedly, being too focused on running I had lost sight on the other key aspects of my life, including my health, something you should never take for granted.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the lifestyle and pressure of a full-time athlete is easy. It comes with its own stress such as the constant pressures to perform to hold on to sponsorship deals and funding. A lack of job and financial security is something I don’t envy and I am very thankful for my guaranteed pay slip at the end of the month.

Taking control

Over the last 18 months, my own circumstances changed. I have a new job as part of the community rehab team at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, and train with a group under the guidance of my coach, Rob McKim, at Reading AC. This change has seen my progression to a 2:37 marathon and my first England vest.

I’m still learning that I need to be more relaxed about training in order to have a better work-life balance. I am concentrating on looking after myself to be the best athlete I can be. I still have very limited time during the week, but with a consistent 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday routine, my balance is much easier to manage.

Lessons learned

There are other things I have learned from my experiences. I now recognise that it’s okay to drop a run to go out and socialise with your friends, that it’s okay to miss a gym session because you had to stay at work late. It’s about asking yourself: “Will this run make me better or will it make me more tired?”

You have to learn how to prioritise your training but most importantly your recovery too. Above all, you need to be organised and to maximise every minute of the day, but also to be flexible with your commitments. That’s what gives you balance.

What’s your balance?

My experiences got me thinking more deeply about the implications of work-life-sport balance on performance. Does having to juggle working and training put a glass ceiling on your progression? Are there barriers around adequate recovery, difficulty in increasing training volume and lack of flexibility with taking time off for overseas training and competition?

It is something I wanted to explore further and so I created a survey to get more information from other athletes about how they balance life as a working athlete and whether they think it presents potential barriers to success. Results were intriguing and you can read about the findings in part two of my report here.

» Anna Boniface is a 2:37 marathon runner who made her England debut at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October. See annaboniface.com

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