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Trail Tips

Lack of Time? You Can Still Do It

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Three years ago, I interviewed my wife Megan Roche on how she trained during medical school rotations. Through coaching, I had seen athletes go through medical school before, and she seemed to have a special ability to make it happen in a busy life. Since that interview, a lot has changed.

One, Megan graduated with her M.D. So you can guess which one of us is the brains of this operation.

Two, she decided not to go to residency, instead focusing on coaching, writing and research. “It may not make for the most impressive Linkedin profile, but it’s where I find my joy,” she said this morning. “Plus there aren’t any 2 A.M. alarms.” Since this article describes a two-year experiment, it’s possible that these jam-packed schedules are not sustainable forever.

That means some 2:30 a.m. alarms

Three, we have seen athletes do so many amazing things that make running during medical school rotations pale in comparison. There’s Yvonne Naughton, a doctor, mom and coach who won the Bighorn 100 this year. There’s Brianna Grigsby, a medical resident who is always there for others and is still setting PRs. And I’m sure you have countless other stories of people that inspire you daily, whether it’s with their presence as a friend or badassery in the boardroom.

The main thing we want to emphasize is that doing a lot of stuff is not a virtue in and of itself. Waking up at 3 a.m. is not a character strength, planning your day to the minute does not bring happiness. Instead, this article is intended to provide some tips for runners that find meaning and purpose from the daily grind of training, but sometimes have trouble fitting it all in.

Most importantly, remember that you are enough, unconditionally. You’re enough if you fit in a run on a busy day, or you don’t. You’re definitely enough if you hit the snooze button. You’re enough if you’re a runner or not, have a job or don’t, or however else you decide to live your life.

On the backdrop of acknowledging how amazing you are (because you are amazing), here are five ideas to maintain running consistency in a busy life.

From January, 2016:

Megan Roche is a fourth-year medical student at Stanford in the midst of rotations—the grueling time when future doctors sometimes get to the hospital at 5 a.m. and get back at 7 p.m., somehow learning to save lives while they are gone. 

Once you have the time compartmentalized, Megan says to stay focused and committed, but to let yourself physically relax the remainder of the day.

Megan is also a trail runner who won the 2016 U.S. 30K and 50K national championships, the North American Mountain Running Championship and the Way Too Cool 50K. How does she do it? When she started rotations, she made a decision and wrote it on a post-it note. That note on our fridge says:

“Lack of time is not an excuse.”

Here is how she makes it work.

Decide how much time it takes each day to reach your goals, and compartmentalize your days.

“Start by determining how long your run takes, then plan back from the start of your day,” Megan suggests, saying she learned this method from some inspiring runner moms she knows.

For her, a typical morning is 60 to 80 minutes of running, with a quick warmup routine before the run (five minutes) and a few strength exercises after (10 minutes). Plus, it takes her 30 minutes to wake up, guzzle coffee and drive to the gym (since it is too early to safely run outside), then 45 minutes to squeegee off the sweat, change and drive to the hospital. So she knows that, in total, it takes her about three hours from the alarm blaring Miley Cyrus to being ready to party in the USA at the hospital.

Then she subtracts that from her start time at work. “That means some 2:30 a.m. alarms and 3 a.m. workouts on surgical rotations,” Megan says. “But that is what it takes given my choices.”

Once you have the time compartmentalized, Megan says to stay focused and committed, but to let yourself physically relax the remainder of the day. “For two hours each day, I let myself be an athlete. The rest of the time, I am a student, a wife and a person just trying to figure things out.”

Never snooze your alarm—stick to a routine.

“Some days, I might get to the gym and not have enough energy to do my planned workout,” Megan says. “On those days, I’ll run shorter or easier, with the understanding that even a 10 minute run counts. But the one thing I never compromise is waking up when the alarm goes off. It’s a slippery slope from snoozing once to snoozing like it’s your job.”

Of everything Megan does, I find the no-snooze policy one of the most amazing. When her alarm goes off, I am usually frolicking through a field of wild pizza plants with 1,000 golden retriever puppies. To me, it seems so easy to press a button and go back to dreamland.

Instead of fretting about pace on her runs, Megan aims only to put in the time on her feet, relying on heart rate to guide her exertion.

But Megan stays focused. One day last year, her alarm was eaten by the goblins that live in our phones and want us to sleep in. I woke up at 4 a.m. and saw her peacefully asleep, cavorting with puppies through the pizza fields. I gently nudged her, and told her it was two hours later than her designated wake-up time. Megan is generally the cheeriest, most optimistic person I know, so what happened next was striking. She yelled “[expletive deleted]!” and put her head in her hands dejectedly.

Megan loves running, but that wasn’t the only thing that made her sad. “I rely on that routine to get through the day,” she says.

The lesson of establishing set routines applies throughout her busy schedule. She wears similar clothes most weeks and generally does what she can to minimize how many decisions she has to make on a daily basis.

Don’t practice self-criticism.

“It’s easy to be judgmental about yourself,” Megan says. “So I try to not start the cycle. My motto with work and running is ‘Don’t Judge.’”

Instead of fretting about pace on her runs, Megan aims only to put in the time on her feet, relying on heart rate to guide her exertion. “Running by heart rate allows my body to incorporate fatigue into workout planning without getting my brain involved,” she says.

Similarly, she tries not to worry about the compromises she might have to make as a runner or as a student. “Life almost always involves compromises. I try to view each of them in a different light—as a choice to pursue multiple dreams at the same time.” She notes that all of this gets a lot more complicated as a parent, and it’s essential to cut yourself as much slack as possible no matter what you do in life.

Make training and work fun.

Building from that philosophy, Megan strives to maintain a Zen-like focus on each day. “I’m not always going to reach my goals. But each day is a gift and I constantly remind myself to love the moment.”

Over time, Megan has cultivated an infectious enthusiasm that she tries to apply across her life. “It’s not always that easy,” she says. But in general, she tries to mix unbridled enthusiasm for the present moment with an overarching focus on the distant horizon. With that, the path between the two becomes easier and more fun to travel.

Of course, there are still lots of tears along the way. Our dog Addie sleeps under the bed and sometimes experiences a sobbing earthquake. But practicing self-acceptance can let the tears be an important part of the journey as well, rather than something to be ashamed of.

Be a camel when it comes to sleep, nutrition and adventure.

Megan describes her Theory of Life, with its Camel Corollary: “Each day, I make sure I get enough nutrition to stay in an energy surplus. I also try to average eight hours of sleep and one or two hours of nature time. Sometimes, the sleep and the nature are not possible during the week, so I get my fill on my day off, like a camel before crossing the desert.”

The daily nutrition leaves less margin for error, so she applies a simple rule. “When I have a spare moment, I eat and drink as much as I can. No break-room sandwich is safe.”

With sleep, she gets to bed as soon as she can each day. If she gets off at 7 p.m., she is asleep by 8. Then, on her days off, she sleeps in and naps to eliminate as much of the deficit as possible.

She applies the same principle to nature time. On her days off, she spends her time outdoors with family. (In fact, I conducted this interview under a tree, by request of the interviewee.)

“Most importantly,” Megan says as I finish my last question, “Lots of things will have to change when I am a mom, and this might not be sustainable when I am a resident. No matter what, I will be inspired by the amazing and tireless people in the trail-running community. Without them, I’d be snoozing the alarm every single day and twice on Sunday.”

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All PlayHis book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.