Courtesy of Julia Galan/SwimSpire. Triathlon Tips courtesy of Monique McDonough.
Just about every day, someone says to me “I don’t know how you do it.” On the surface, I get it. My husband, Greg, and I both work full-time. We have two young children, ages 6 and 2 and ½. And, we’re both training for an Ironman this summer – actually, for the second year in a row. Yes, we’re crazy.
Before I share the secrets as to how Greg and I make it work, let me tell you a bit about me. Though I claim I’m not an athlete, I’m a 5-time Ironman finisher. I started in the sport more than a decade ago, as a way to soften the blow of turning 30. As you may have guessed, I was instantly hooked. Three Ironman finishes later, I took a multi-year hiatus from the sport to have kids, but I returned to the long-distance sport in 2014 when Greg and I raced (and finished) Ironman Lake Placid together. It was Greg’s first IM distance, and our first long-distance race as parents.
We knew then that we were ambitious upon setting out on our journey to train together, so we blogged about it: the good, the bad, and the disastrous. What I will share below is a series of highlights about what we learned, and how we made it work.
One – First and foremost, be honest with yourself that you can’t do it all.
Essentially, you have four main areas of your life to balance: Work, Family, Training and Personal. You’ve only got 24 hours in each day, so the reality is that you can’t double-down to get the promotion at work, coach your kids’ little league team, and plan your high school reunion, all while getting in 15-20 hours of training each week. Before you set out on your Ironman training journey, determine what is most important to you for THAT particular year. Make a list of priorities in each area, and think about what types of commitments they will require. Be honest with yourself about where you are willing to dial back your time. And, most importantly, share those priorities with your partner – i.e. training companion – so that you’re both on the same page.
Two – Plan, plan, plan, and work your plan.
Fundamentally, this is the most important aspect to making things work. You will need to meticulously look at your calendar and proactively search to find the time to get everything done. Each week, I look on to the next week and schedule workouts around my work and family commitments. Typically, biking gets done in the early morning before the kids wake up. Swims are completed in the late afternoon between conference calls and meetings, and runs are woven in anywhere I can find a block of time. But, in order to make sure that I have the time, I have to plan in advance, especially in terms of coverage for the long workouts of the week. Be sure to stick to your plan. Missing workouts exacerbates the problem of finding time and extra stress is not something you need. Just work with the plan you’ve set for yourself.
Three – Be creative, especially with your long workouts.
This is especially important during the last few months of Ironman training, when your long rides can take up 6-8 hours. The last thing Greg and I wanted to do was to spend all day Saturday on our bikes, while missing precious time with our girls AND paying for a babysitter. We both have flexible jobs, so we were able to take a fair number of Fridays off from work so that we could get in our miles. We found a biking route that would enable us to drop the kids off at school at 8 am, drive out to our launch point, ride 90-100 miles, and then jump back in the car and pick up the kids by 6 pm. For those without the same flexibility, try to take advantage of “summer Fridays” or even use vacation days. Maybe you can’t do it every Friday, but every little bit helps.
Four – Double Up.
This means carving out opportunities in your days to do two things at once so that you can “find time”. In a previous life, I would steal time from my commute and run or bike home from the office. Greg and I have been known to run with the kids in the jogging stroller on the way to school or other activities. I’ve also (dare I say) participated in conference calls while riding my bike on the trainer. Just as you can be creative with your long workouts, you will also need to be creative with weekday workouts, too. If you take a step back to reflect, you’ll find several ways to do two things at once.
Five – Say yes to anyone who offers to help.
We started out by making a list of every local family member, babysitter and friend we could think of to help us. We asked grandparents to watch the kids during training races and long rides. We had neighbors come to the house and watch the girls during early morning runs or swims. We swapped childcare coverage with other athletes so that we could all accomplish what we needed. Otherwise, be prepared to pay a lot for babysitting, or expect to go a long time without seeing your spouse. For example, for one 120-mile supported ride, we paid a babysitter to watch the girls. The total price for the day, which included taxis to and from our house, the cost of two ride entry fees, and then the actual cost of the babysitting was worth it in that one instance but definitely not repeatable.
Six – Buddy Up.
Remember that you’re doing this together as a journey, so travel it together. Greg and I do at least half of our training together, and it has been a great way to ensure that we get the chance to catch up with each other regularly. It allows us to motivate, encourage and pace each other, but it also ensures that we’re keeping each other on track with workouts and not falling behind. Greg is faster than I am, but I’m more experienced at long distances. Over time, a balance begins to fall into place.
Seven – Invest in the Right Places.
Let’s face it, triathlon can be an expensive sport. And when you have two parents with twice the gear, it can get out of control. We found that a few smart investments helped us get in the right workouts, without neglecting our kids and other responsibilities. Here’s what worked for us:
A- Get a Coach.
It may seem like a luxury, but it’s actually pretty important to have a coach work with you and your partner to develop the right plans for you. You need someone to help craft the right training plan that accommodates your schedule, and your needs. Plus, it’s super helpful to be accountable to someone other than yourselves. No spouse or partner wants to have to be the “bad guy” when your significant other isn’t completing workouts.
B – Join a gym with a daycare.
At least once each week, we head to the gym with the girls to get in whatever two hour workout we need. Sometimes it would be back-to-back spin classes. Sometimes we would do a bike/run brick. Other times, it was just the weights. It’s a cheap support option and the girls loved it. (We would even arrange playdates with their friends – a great way to double up to-dos!) Plus, it offers each of you early morning and late evening flexibility that you’ll surely need as a working and training parent.
C – Get a Jogging Stroller.
This helps a lot with the weekday miles and the shorter distances. I’ve learned that we can run about 6 miles with both girls in one stroller, but if I take just my oldest daughter, I can go nearly 10 miles. (Here’s my secret – I run a 4-mile loop to the Starbucks. Stop, get a hot chocolate. Then, we run 3 miles to a carousel on the National Mall. Stop, take a quick spin. Then, run 3 miles back home!) Sometimes, you need to fully divide and conquer with your spouse, but I found that the times I’ve spent while running with my oldest girl have been great mommy/daughter experiences.
D – If you can afford it, get a Computrainer.
It’s a running joke with my client, but at least once each week, Greg and I are on our bikes by 4:30 to complete our mid-week bike ride. Any old trainer would be fine, but I really think the difference between training for an Olympic-distance race versus preparing for an IM-distance is having a simulation-based system that mimics the changes in terrain, and simulates climbing. We just can’t get outside and ride on the road in the same way that non-parents can, so this investment has paid off for us.
Eight – Encourage & Forgive.
Last but not least, don’t forget that you’re doing this for fun, fitness, and whatever other reasons may be important to you. You probably won’t be able to get it all done as perfectly as you would like, so remember to be supportive of your partner and yourself, keep your focus on what is important, and be as diligent as you can in completing your workouts,. With that in mind, you’ll be able to get to the finish line healthy and happy, and enjoy yourself and your family along the way.
Monique McDonough is a 5-time Ironman finisher who juggles parenthood, training, and a full-time job as a consultant. Monique isn’t fast, but she is determined, and she races to prove to her children (and, yes, to herself) that anything is possible with a bit of focus and a lot of effort. Monique lives in Washington, DC with her husband and fellow triathlete, Greg, their two young children, and their beloved dog, Sharkie. Monique and Greg recently published The Road to Being an Ironman: North American Ironman Triathlons, a go-to resource for anyone contemplating an M-dot race in North America. Read more about their journey and the journey of others at www.TriathlonParents.com.
About Julia Galan
Julia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.
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Great advice! While these solutions are doable when your children are still young and they dont have a life of their own I would love some suggestions for when your children are 10 and have a swim meet every other weekend on top of soccer and softball. I cant seem to get in the training on the weekends with their schedules. Happy Training!
Tip #9 – give up your self absorption until your kids are older. Take them to the park, take them on vacation, get them involved in sports or other activities. You’ll have plenty of time for your obsession when they finish high school. See also Tip #1 – you can’t do it all. Something will suffer – your career, your marriage, your children. And for what? A few medals and an Ironman tattoo.