The Modern Triathele-Parent's Guide to Sanity

Deb's three girls enjoying the view while hiking in Colorado.

Today, parents have more information than ever before, and expectations of parenting are incredibly high.  If you believe what you read, parents are expected to maintain an exceedingly successful organic, baby wearing, early reading, multi-lingual household in which both parents work but are yet miraculously present for every one of each high-achieving kid’s defining moments.  We are expected to do it all. 

I am not a triathlete, but I have run more than 30 ultramarathons while raising children.  Four of those years were as a single parent.  I have three beautiful daughters who were born less than sixteen months apart.  If you are keeping track, that was three babies in diapers at once, three preschoolers, three grade schoolers, and now three hormonal tweens.  So far, it’s been every parenting phase intensified.  Some of those phases are much more time intensive and draining than others.  We like to call it “extreme” parenting.  To me, parenting feels only marginally successful about half of the time, and my training schedule is incredibly hit and miss.  This is WITH a supportive partner!

So, really – how do parents juggle raising kids with swim, bike, and run hours?  How do they maintain their sanity?  There are ways to increase your training sanity while not adding to your stress level too much.  Many articles out there suggest ways to squeeze in a workout here and there.  If you are a parent, most likely, you creatively know how to fit in workouts already.  However, I find that much of the secret to juggling training and parenting comes down to honest assessments of where you have been, are, and are going.

1.       Be realistic about how much you can actually train.

For the record, this doesn’t mean if you “can” train six hours a week you are giving up on that Ironman goal forever.  What it really means is that you are acknowledging how much free time you realistically have and how much energy you have to devote to the priority of training.  It also means that you are giving yourself permission to not take on more than you can handle.

The amount of training you can put in is a product of a very personal view of your life.  It is not something that you can look to someone else and reasonably say that if Sally can swim for three hours a week with five kids, I should be able to do at least five with only one! 

The word “can” doesn’t mean what you are physically able to do.  It’s a compromise between all of the facets of life to figure out how much exercise you need to reach your goals and what you are willing to give up for it.  When we get down to it, that’s what training really is for anyone. 

2.       Be realistic about what support you have

Some people are in the enviable position to drop the kids off with parents or siblings whenever it suits them.  This is wonderful and good for so many things beyond training.  However, many people don’t have that level of support.  Some people are single parents or grandparents or caretakers.  Some people live far from family or just know nobody in who is willing to help. 

It is a great idea to seek out like-minded people who are willing to swap kids for an hour or two twice a week.  Also, gyms and rec centres frequently offer childminding for members.  Keep in mind that these can be a part of your support system as well.

Regardless of how much you can count on, it’s a darn good idea to make some peace with the support web that you actually have, rather than keep trying to change others into giving more than they can.

3.       Assess what your true goals are

This is a tough one.  So many of us come out and say, “I’M GOING TO IRONMAN THIS YEAR!  I CAN!!!”  Honestly, yes, you can.  However, it’s important when you have limited resources to honestly tell yourself what your goals are.  What is the most important to you?  Is it more important that your son watch you cross the finish line in Kona as a role model?  Conversely, while you’d love to race, are you really in this to stay fit for longevity?  Do you enjoy the community of like-minded people with healthy habits more?  The truth is that you may not have the ability to satisfy all of your goals on a busy schedule, and that’s okay. 

The above goals are very different and require very different levels of commitment.  The answer is also quite personal for each athlete.  If you know going into training which of your goals are most important, it helps.  All of your goals are important, of course.  However, in times of extreme stress, sometimes one of them slips a little.  It’s a good idea to prioritize ahead of time.  Which variables don’t truly matter if you can’t meet them?  Which one will disappoint you the least if you have to let one or two slide? 

4.       Be realistic about your race goals

So, now that you have had a little talk with yourself about how many hours a week you can really get away to train, using the actual resources you have available, it’s a good idea to translate all of that data into race goals.  If, for example, you have a very supportive family and can get away for hours at a time without feeling guilty, this may be your Ironman year.  However, know that you are no less of an athlete if you realistically can’t get more than a few hours a week in.  The difference is that you can plan ahead and set your race goals accordingly so that you aren’t disappointed in your performance. 

Another strategy that you might use is to upgrade your training while downgrading your race.  In having a conversation with your coach, if you feel like training for a sprint tri won’t really get you the fitness and mental health check that you need, maybe you want to do Olympic or Half Iron training, knowing that you may not be able to make every single minute in the pool.  Training for a bigger race but still planning to race the shorter race can give you the flexibility and forgiveness you may find you need.

5.       Be honest with your supports

It’s always a good idea to have open and honest conversations with everyone whose help you ask for.  This is especially true when it comes to minding your children.  It’s DOUBLY especially true when it comes to minding your children for something that many people see as a hobby and not a necessity. 

Training is not important to everyone else.  However, even if others will never understand the mental and physical satisfaction that comes from your training – or how it keeps you sane in the rest of your life – they should understand realistically the time commitments you are asking for.  Please do not ask your friend to watch your kids for 2-ish hours when you mean it to be a 3+ hour cycle.   Do not ask your mom just this once when you mean every Thursday.  Part of your plan includes your supports.  Bring them on your journey, and give them a chance to buy into supporting you, rather than burning them out.

6.       Be honest about how you have trained

I know so many people who have disappointed themselves because, while they made time for training, they didn’t make space for the race conditions.  We all know this, but wind trainers are not the same as riding a course, pool swimming is not open water swimming, and treadmills are not the same as trail running.

Early on, I figured out that I can run a shorter ultra on not much training.  I just have to be comfortable flirting with the course time limits and being at the back of the pack.  That, and it will hurt more than if I had trained.  I go into a race with the attitude that I am undertrained and I am just going in to finish.  By managing my expectations and understanding my abilities, it suddenly becomes an organized day in the woods (with snacks!) and a fun adventure.

7.       Be honest with – and forgiving of – yourself

Having a hectic schedule with kids at home is a temporary condition.  You will always be a parent no matter where your kids are.  However, kids do grow up.  Your schedule will free up.  When it does, I hope you are the first person to be in line to train for whatever your heart desires simply because your schedule is free.  Until then, if you miss a workout because you have a sick kid, remember that it was just one task.  You can make it up.  Even the most hardcore of athletes miss an occasional session of their exercise regime.

On the other hand, if you find yourself missing a good chunk of your scheduled workouts, and you are unable to make them up, it’s good idea to reassess what your training and race goals should be.  This doesn’t mean you can’t complete your goal race.  You may just need to adjust your schedule with your coach.

8.       Don’t compare yourself to others

This is a difficult task for so many athletes, as we tend to be driven and competitive.  Just remember that no two stories are alike.  If you and your neighbour both have two preschool-aged children, and she is able to fit fifteen hours a week of training in, it doesn’t mean that you should be able to do the same.  Your neighbour may have additional resources that you don’t.  She may perform better with less sleep than you do.  Or, she may be setting herself up for burnout or injury.  Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get in those same hours.  There are any variety of reasons that your training schedules may not match up.

Remember that this is YOUR journey and your journey alone.  Accepting that can make the journey a lot more enjoyable for you.

Raising children is exhausting under the best of circumstances.  It takes a lot of work.  It takes a lot of time.  It takes a lot of emotional energy.  Parenting by itself makes you a badass.  Training a lighter schedule in order to keep parenting manageable doesn’t make you any less of a badass.  It just makes you a smart and realistic badass.

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Deb Kennedy - Mom, Wife, Ultra Runner

When Deb’s twins were born in 2005, she decided that she would be a pretty terrible soccer mom, so she packed her bags, and moved to Oregon, where she discovered the beauty of trail running and the unsurpassable comradery of trail sisters.  Amazingly, the twins felt they needed a little sister, so, one day, Deb turned over a trillium during a run, and then there were three.  We all know that’s how it works.

These days, Deb can be found in Cobble Hill, with her husband – who she married because of his clean-shaven cycling legs and clever wit – and three tweenage daughters.  She is proudly a middle-aged, undertrained ultrarunner.  Deb frequently refers to ultras as “organized days in the woods with snacks.”  She can occasionally be found at the back of the pack during a race.  She claims this is mostly because the back of the packers have better stories and snacks.