Time. This constraint puts a clamp on countless recreational running careers. Between work, family and sundry inescapable responsibilities, some people cannot realistically put in the training time they would like to; many cannot even run every day.
Nevertheless, out of all of the limitations on training volume, this one seems to be the one for which people constantly offer advice on work-arounds:
“Well, if you get up a half-hour earlier, that’s three or four miles right there.”
“Just run at night when the kids are in bed.”
“Can’t you sneak in a run on your lunch break and eat at your desk later?”
Sometimes, this well-meaning advice is applicable; at other times it merely invites problems. A lot of working Americans—not to mention stay-at-home parents of young children—are chronically on the hairy edge of sleep deprivation as it is, so the suggestion to rise earlier in order to get in a run may not be wise. This underscores the fact that there is a lot of interplay between the “functional” consideration of time and the recoverability issue. If you have to legitimately fight to make time to run, then increasing your workload most likely implies cutting into necessary rest time and thus may not be helpful to your performances at all.
Still, depending on how important training is to you, how compliant and accommodating your spouse or partner is (as a coach of adult marathoners I have found it prudent to never, ever encourage runners to cross their mates by being gone too often on weekend mornings, even when a compromise seems reasonable), and your financial resources, you may be able to employ workable strategies in this area.
If you have a treadmill in your home, for example, you can literally run while watching your child or children; a baby jogger presents a similar, less expensive option. Some of the options mentioned earlier—getting up early, running late—may in fact be useful, and these tend to be more palatable to both runners and their spouses if such habits are developed with the understanding that they’re part of a finite training cycle (e.g. a three- or four-month marathon build-up). And if you’re training for a marathon, since typically the weekend long run is the most important training run you’ll do every week, you may be able to work out a domestic compromise, if such applies.
In the end, though, many people simply run afoul of being able to put in the kind of training they read and dream about, because there are only so many ways to create breaks in a busy lifestyle. This is just reality, and in no way does it imply that running and racing cannot remain an important and enjoyable aspect of busy people’s lives, even if it means that some will forever wonder what heights they might have reached in a parallel universe offering thirty-hour days.
When I was in high school, the Internet did not exist and I had a limited sense of what the best preps in the country were doing for training. Publications such as The Runner and Boston Running News offered limited insights in this regard, although they did casually note the 100-miles-a-week-and-up regimens of world-class marathoners, something that struck me as otherworldly if not insane at the time. I built up to a high of 65 miles in a week during a summer in which I averaged about 50-55, and that was more than anyone I knew was doing. My teammates thought I was really pushing it, maybe too much.
Had I grown up in the present decade, I would have known that my training was far from unusual—modest, in fact, in comparison to many standouts. Would I have trained more or harder during the summer had I been exposed to such information in my teens? Almost certainly; I never had problems with the workload I settled on. Would this have helped? I’m inclined to say yes, but this is really open to question.
The point of this anecdote is to illustrate an important point: Just because you have the time, energy and will to train more doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. Can and should are as distinct from one another in running as they are elsewhere.
If your focus is the marathon, then it is well worth your while to push the volume limits. Raw endurance is your greatest ally in this event, and a lot of coaches—myself among them—believe that total workload is far more important than the length of long runs when it comes to success in this event. But if your focus is on races 10km or shorter and these days the roads are riddled with 5K “specialists” thanks to the sheer glut of 5K events, you probably don’t have to put in the kind of time you hear about from marathoners or national-class track athletes.
I wish I could offer numerical guidelines here, but unfortunately that would be futile, and this is no cop-out. I have known runners who have staked out territory in the 1.5 to 2 hours per day range (about 80 to well over 100 miles a week in most cases) after only a year or two of running, and others who cannot seemingly put in an hour a day without eventual mishap no matter how prudent their approach.