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Work-Life Balance + Triathlon: Tricks of the Trade

Today's guest post comes from a name that many Washingtonians recognize. Professional triathlete Margie Shapiro was so kind to do me a favor and write a guest post about balancing work-life and training. She is quite amazing with all the accolades that she's achieved in her career (highlighted in this ​ article) but more importantly, she is humble about it and continues to choose balance in her life. Please check it out and share!


Some people know me in the competitive realm as a professional triathlete; others think of me as a fellow mom; still others used to know me as a former business owner or now look at me as a coach or high school teacher. In all of these roles, one thing stays the same: I’m always busy and trying to fit more into the day (just like everyone)… at heart, I’m an athlete-mom with a few other things to do. Over the past 15 years, I’ve gotten the question “how do you fit it all in?” too many times to count. My knee-jerk response has been consistent: “with a lot of help!” That answer is always true, but in addition to leaning on my husband and family to be supportive, understanding, and often asking others to be in loco parentis, I’ve developed a number of habits that deserve some credit too. And I’ve learned a lot from the athletes I’ve competed against and those I’ve coached. From all this experience I’d like to share my insights. First, I’ll lay out a typical day now back to school: 5:30am Wake up 5:35 – 6:30 Shower, eat, make lunches for the kids, check email, possibly send a few coaching workouts to athletes 6:30 – 7 Work commute 7 – 3:30 Work (teach high school Spanish) 3:30 – 4 Return commute 4 – 6 Swim/bike/run/lift, usually about 90 min 6 – 7 Shuttle kids/cook dinner/check email 7 – 8 Family dinnertime, no distractions 8 – 10 More computer/work time or TV time with family, wind down On an ideal day when working from home, my schedule was like this: 5:30am Wake up, eat, work on computer (some days go to coach runners) 6:30 – 8:30 Get kids up and out (walk daughter to school) 9 – 11 Workout #1 11 – 2 Work on computer 2 – 5 Workout #2 and/or chiro/PT/massage 5 and later: Shuttle kids, make dinner, family time, etc. Yes, it was a lot easier when I had the flexible schedule working from home provided. Even years before that, I managed to juggle young children by taking advantage of preschool time or using the gym child care to get in workouts without spending much time away from them. It’s not easy, but we can be parents, excel in our jobs, and enjoy triathlon! Here are some tactics and attitudes I have tried:

  • Learn to prioritize goals. My number one goal is to be a good mom and provide my family a healthy and happy environment. This goal means making enough time for my own personal growth, all the while making sure that I don’t become so obsessed with training/racing that my family’s needs fall by the wayside. I give myself permission to miss workouts when it’s more important to be with family. In addition, it’s ok to lean on family when a big goal requires help. Sharing goals with family members gives them a window into a special world and often sets up a wide network of support. Though I am not an ironman racer, I know that even half ironman and shorter distances require family support. That family also needs to be thanked and recognized for the sacrifices they make for the racer. I make sure to put their needs first as much as possible, but to forgive myself when I feel a touch of guilt when my own needs crowd theirs out.

  • Then prioritize workouts within the training plan. The simplest way to learn how to prioritize workouts is to identify personal limiters and those presented by a race course and work from there. Often I have enjoyed a coach’s expertise in helping me define these limiters. Once limiters are clear, my coach (or I) will write the training week with those workouts in mind, and then rounding it out with the less important sessions designed to maintain fitness or enhance recovery. If something needs to go, I do my best to make sure it’s not a key session. I will admit that, of late, it’s been frequent that something does get struck from the plan, in favor of rest or another of life’s priorities.

  • Next, prioritize tasks. Especially with limited training time, it’s important to categorize life’s tasks into Maximally, Minimally, and Marginally important. Sometimes I even make a list of ALL tasks and then reorder them by true importance; otherwise I find myself resorting to my clearing mechanism: scratching things off the list for the sake of clearing instead of to get down to what matters most. Maximally important tasks include shuttling my kids to their activities, spending time with them and my husband and dog, getting to work on time and in a good frame of mind to perform well professionally, etc. Minimally important tasks like laundry or the perfect dinner still make the day’s list but sometimes get pushed off. I need to limit the minimally important tasks. It’s not uncommon for me to catch myself trying to vacuum the storage room before completing my swim, and I have to reorder the priorities so that I force that swim before picking up my son – otherwise I won’t touch water… and a room I rarely enter will be spic and span. While a clean house is good for my mental health, completing my swims is even better, and bringing my son home on time is best!) Sometimes letting the storage room collect extra dust or spiders is a good mental and physical health decision.

  • Work out with a training group/club/team. Many professional triathletes thrive in a group-training environment, benefitting from the expertise of a coach at the helm, the subtle (or overt) competition within workouts, and the camaraderie of suffering (and recovering!) together. I know of many amateur triathletes who also enjoy this setup not only for the physical fitness aspect, but also for the social rewards. I wish that situation could work for me, but I became a mom just shy of my 24th birthday, before triathlon really entered my world, so a pro triathlon-training group was never a possibility. That said, if it works for you, try out a club – we have several locally worth contacting!

  • Setting up a mini training group or set of friends to hold each other accountable. This too hasn’t been very successful for me since I haven’t found a network of pro triathletes locally with whom I could train, but I have enjoyed group workouts here and there in the form of masters swim groups (I’ve swam with a few) and group cycling rides (my preference is Reston Bike Club). While I haven’t needed the accountability that comes with company, I have definitely enjoyed the added motivation I get when not going alone.

  • Working with a coach. When I first started racing triathlon, I self-coached (more like did whatever I felt like doing). Then I worked with a coach for several years and learned immense amounts about how to structure training efficiently and effectively – perhaps at the most crucial time of my life, when my kids were very young and when I was chasing Olympic dreams. Then, I spent several years self-coaching, applying much of what I’d learned, before working with another expert coach once more in recent years. The benefits of sitting back and letting someone else tell you what to do go well beyond the planning/analysis time saved. I look at it almost like a doctor who needs surgery: even if he knows what and how to perform the surgery, ultimately he is better off letting someone else hold the scalpel. It eases stress for me to let go and listen to my coach, particularly when it comes to taking a much needed (but dreaded) day off or giving myself permission to back off or, occasionally, the nudge to push harder. If I know I have 90 minutes in a day to dedicate to training, I’d much rather go into those minutes knowing exactly what to do and trusting that I’m spending them the most effective way possible, as corroborated by someone who knows more than I do and who is looking with the bird’s eye view that allows for broader vision.

  • Logging/journaling. I get motivated when I look back at solid workouts or plan ahead to an upcoming race. I like the satisfaction of seeing my progress visually. TrainingPeaks software has been my logging method lately, and prior it was a detailed spreadsheet. Even as a high school runner, I’d write down notes from practice in a running log. Looking back on logs allows us to appreciate what we’ve accomplished and shows us that we DID in fact fit it in.

It’s not easy and nobody’s perfect, but many people end up thriving more when forced to work with less. If ANY of these tactics work for you, take them and run… And I wish you the best in your training and racing. GO FOR IT!!

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