Many people struggle to perfect a healthy balance between work and life; this can become even more challenging when you add an athletic goal to the mixture. Five years ago I decided to push for the impossible: to qualify for the Olympic games. With a personal best over 50 seconds off the standard I knew this was a serious long shot, and if I was going to pursue it, it was critical that I keep my professional development in mind as well.
Since then, I have moved to being an elite Canadian runner while completing my MSc in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene and have been working as a research assistant since October 2016. This journey hasn’t been easy, and there have been times when my running may have suffered from inadequate sleep and academic stress, and other times when my academics may have fallen behind (i.e. taking a bit longer to complete my thesis). Through trial and error I have learned to balance having both athletic and career goals and to be thankful to have both avenues in my life. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:
Find a flexible employer and earn their trust: It’s best to find a manager who not only supports your athletic goals but offers some flexibility in scheduling and, ideally, is more focused on deliverables than whether you are sitting at your desk from 9-5pm (within reason). Runs and workouts often need to be completed during these hours, especially in the winter months so having someone who’s okay with you taking a longer lunch break to do your run, arrive a bit later or leave early is very helpful. All that said, flexibility of hours does not mean flexibility of deadlines, and it’s critical to demonstrate that you can complete assignments when asked. If your job is shift work by nature then try to be flexible in when you exercise and not sweat the small stuff: such as running or biking to work or wearing reflective safety gear and finding a safe running route for after dark are all options. Transparency is always key. There should be open communication about your goals and the needs of your employer.
Be organized: My most productive weeks happen when I plan in advance. On Sunday I’ll sit down and write out how to fit training goals around my work schedule and vice-versa. First, identify critical meetings and workouts that need to occur at certain times and then secondly write out all other weekly goals and put the puzzle together. Once your schedule is made it can be helpful to re-visit this to-do list before going to bed each night. Use your weekends to cook and prepare breakfasts, salads and snacks for the upcoming week.
Focus on quality: While it’s typically okay to brainstorm work ideas on your easy runs, there are times when one task requires absolute focus. Ideally, I aim find 15 minutes to unwind before a workout and go over the training goals. If there’s no time for this I try to use my warm-up to focus and avoid talking or thinking about anything other than running. The more focused you can be for your workout, the better quality it will be. Execute a similar strategy at work; limit procrastination and aim to produce high quality work as efficiently as possible.
Prioritize goals: If you’re at a critical stage of your career, your athletics may have to go on the back burner for a bit. Alternatively, if there’s a once in a life-time race or goal on your radar, you may need to decrease the hours you work. Adjust your goals accordingly and be aware that one may need to take priority over the other. For example, I did not work last summer while I was chasing my Olympic dream, but when I started up at my new job this fall I only ran once a day while I got used to a 37.5hr work week. I try to think of it as crop rotation.
Take care of yourself: No matter how big your goals are, your sleep, nutrition and mental health should always come first. Aim to eat good food, and get enough sleep so that you’re not wrecked at the end of the week (8-10 hours depending on the person). Also, take a few nights off to see your friends, watch a movie or do something else that makes you happy. Extreme stress is manageable for only a short amount of time, and just like over-training, prevention is the best policy when it comes to burn out (trust me, I’ve done it!!). Pay close attention to the symptoms of burnout and remember, there’s only 24 hours in a day and you’re only human.
Whether your fitness goal is to complete your first half marathon, or qualify for a Canadian national team, I feel these tips can apply to everyone looking to balance their career with any athletic goal. I realize not all jobs allow for flexibility in your work schedule, so keep your athletic goals in check with how much time you can realistically devote to them. The most important part is to have fun and be inspired by your running goals.