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Four Pillars for Time-Starved Athletes: Concepts for Endurance Training Planning

In this four-part series, elite endurance coach Matt Dixon weighs in how to map your training.

By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness

For every time-starved, performance-minded athlete - no matter what level - there is a consistent challenge of focus. With all the confusing and conflicting information and “quick fixes” for performance, as well as the challenge of trying to integrate unrealistic training plans into already over-scheduled lives, it is no wonder that so many athletes survive in a state of being fit n’ fatigued.

So, what is the route to truly integrating training and performance into a very busy life?

To appropriately map your appropriate endurance training program, it is important to first establish the appropriate lens of your mission. When I am coaching a professional athlete, the quest is “unapologetic world class performance”. This mindset transfers to centralizing all aspects of performance, with the rest of life wrapping around these components.

Simply put, aspects such as sleep, nutrition, training, bodywork, naps, etc. are the priority. Whatever time left over allows for social life and relationships. It is the journey to performance that a professional athlete chooses, but I believe the non-pro lens on performance should be radically different.

Cyclists with training gear

Building a Training Map for the Time-Starved Athlete

As a time-starved amateur with lots of (hopefully) non-negotiable areas of life to perform in, your mission can be identified as:

  1. Improve in your sport -- and reach your goals.
  2. Thrive in the other key institutions of life: health, work, parenting (if applicable) and life (relationships + social).

In other words, success is integration, as well as finding a personal training recipe that can harmoniously coexist with the other aspects of life that are important to you.

The only way to be successful with this lens is to look at the big picture and create a dynamic mindset that can ebb and flow with the unpredictability of what life brings. It is also critical to widen your view on what your “training program” is. With the mission outlined above, a singular focus on the training aspect of the sport will typically lead to a fast track to struggle street.

The Solution:

There is a simple fact that we consistently observe among the most successful athletes. That is a fully integrated mindset with a recipe that includes:

  1. Consistent and specific endurance training.
  2. Supporting strength and conditioning.
  3. Simple but critical habits in nutrition and fueling.
  4. Adequate recovery, including sleep.

You Thrive

We call it “adopting the athletic mindset.” This mindset allows us to draw from the lessons of the professionals; to aim, not to mimic. Your success is dependent on all four of these elements being representative within your global approach or program. Recovery and nutrition cannot be afterthoughts; they are parts of your program. With this established, we can allow ourselves to begin mapping your weekly endurance training, and this map becomes the centerpiece of your success.

Cyclists with training gear

Mapping Endurance Training

The very first question I typically get from incoming new athletes is: How many hours do I need to train to get ready for my race?

This is the normal lens that athletes (and coaches!) look through. Make the plan - then cram into life - typically with very precise and specific spreadsheets of progression.

The unfortunate thing is that it seldom works in real life. Most of us don’t have predictable and programmed lives. Beyond this, trying to cram larger training hours into an already busy life leads to compromises in sleep, eating habits and rest.

The result? Yes, that fit n’ fatigued thing again. Instead, begin at the other side of the challenge.

The steps include:
  1. A landscape of your life
    • Set the non-negotiables such as time for sleep, rest, family and some social life.
    • Gauge your common work schedule, including any commute time.
  2. Identify blocks of available training time
    • Hours you can always, typically and sometimes train.
    • Schedule added time for commuting, showering and post-workout fueling (a key habit!)

With your regular available training hours in hand, the next challenge, or question, becomes: How do I maximize my performance return on training investment based on these available training hours?

This simple exercise eliminates the classic, “How do I cram 20 hours of training in?” (guess what - most can’t!), and transitions to “I typically have about 10 to 12 hours available, how should I optimize?”

You see, time-starved performance is always an optimization challenge, but by taking this on you are empowered to have control while also managing the global training stress to align with the ebbs and flow of life. This is what we call training with a dynamic mindset. When life compresses with other commitments you might have less total hours, but with the aim to maintain the most important -- or key -- training sessions remains.

In a different week you may find more time. Perhaps you have a day off work or the family is out of town for the weekend. When these weeks come up, you can retain the rhythm and intent of your typical training, but add to the total weekly hours, maintaining specificity and enjoying appropriate load boost.

The key is that total weekly hours cannot be a barometer of your success when time-starved. Instead, aim for sustainability and consistency layered over weeks and weeks, and even months and months. With this approach you are empowered to manage your training in a guilt-free and logical manner, and you arrive to your races how we like it - Fit ‘n Fresh!

If you would like to dig deeper into this topic, then I suggest listening to the Purple Patch Podcast episode focused on planning your training. We go deep on the subject and help build out a case for the pragmatic training approach.

I hope this helps frame the start of your training planning.

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former professional triathlete, elite swimmer and exercise physiologist. His Purple Patch coaching community is based in San Francisco, but his athletes span the globe.

His professional triathlon squad has amassed more than 300 Professional wins and podiums in IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races, including the 2016 World Champion. He has qualified more than 250 athletes to the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships, with multiple Age Group World Champions, but he is equally known for his groundbreaking work successfully creating performance in sport and life for time-starved individuals. He guides many leading CEOs of major companies, including well known tech industry leaders.

Matt is the author of the Well Built Triathlete, as well as the new Fast Track Triathlete, an IRONMAN U Master coach, global hydration advisor for Camelbak and a much sought performance expert and speaker.