Trying to run better with a busy life can be a real challenge. Here’s how to get in what you need without wasting time on what you don’t.

The best thing you can do to become a better runner is to run more.  But there’s only so much time in the day. And running more might not be the best idea in the first place.

If you have a busy life outside of running, and let’s face it, we all do, this can be tough. And let me tell you a little secret–all that time might actually be unnecessary!

I’m going to reveal some great ways to better fit your training into your busy life.  I’ll go over:

  • Exactly how much time you need to invest in training for endurance races from the 5k to the marathon
  • How to maximize your training into less overall time, and
  • How to organize your schedule so you can train better without wrecking the rest of your life
run better with a busy life

The Problem With Just Running More

The first thing is that if you are just starting out, running too much too soon or too often is a really bad idea.  Your bones, muscles, tendons aren’t yet used to the pounding of running. Even if you are cardiovascularly fit from another sport, you have to gradually build up your running over time with plenty of recovery time in between sessions.

Gradually, your body will adapt. You will be able to run more and more and more, until it’s a bad idea again.  Everyone’s mileage sweet spot will be a little different. It will change with how you fuel, how you sleep, and lots of other factors. At a certain point, more running breaks you down more than it builds you up.

How Much Time Does it Take?

The next problem with trying to run better with a busy life is that all this running takes so much time!  To really be fit for the marathon, for example, you’ll need to invest 5, 10, maybe even 15 hours a week or more running.  That’s a serious part time job!

If you’re ready to jump into a new distance or if you are feeling overwhelmed with your current schedule, I’ll share the info you need to maximize your miles.

Before I get into some ways to train more effectively in less overall time, let’s break down exactly what kind of time commitment you need.

5k and 10k

If you are training for the 5k, which is a 3.1 mile race, and you are starting from scratch and just want to finish it, not race it in your fastest conceivable time, you can probably get away with running or run/walking  2 or 3 times per week.  Depending on your pace, this can be 30 to 45 minutes or more for each run. That comes out to be an hour and a half or two and a half hours of running per week.

If you are trying to race the 5k hard or you’re moving up to the 10k, you definitely want to be running 3 times a week or more. You’ll run a bit longer most days and including a longer run one of those days.  Your bare minimum time invested is 3 hours, probably averaging 4 or 5. Eperienced runners will likely run more.  Your long run typically doesn’t need to build much higher than 12 miles, because you want to have fresh legs and energy to run hard on your speed days.  Speed days for the 5k are more intense than for longer races, but they also tend to be shorter, time-wise.  If your long run is too long, you simply can’t build top end speed two days later.

This is definitely a case where running longer isn’t always better. Which is great when you are trying to run better with a busy life!

Half Marathon

When we move up to the half marathon, this is where your commitment needs to ramp up. But it still doesn’t have to completely overtake your life.  You can race the half running 3 days a week, but my recommendation would be to work up to 4 or 5 days of running.  The reason for this is because you will want to build your long run to at least 13 miles, or up to as long as 16 miles for experienced runners. If you try to do that only running 3 days a week, your long run will tend to dominate the balance of your training. 

You’ll also want to include one or two speed days a week. If you’re only running 3 days, you don’t have room for easy recovery runs, which are incredibly beneficial.  In most cases it’s better to spread out your mileage over 4 or five days rather than have 2 or 3 longer, harder days.  Your total time investment for the half marathon can range from 4 to even 10 hours a week.

Marathon

When we get to the marathon, your time investment seriously goes up.  While it’s possible to train for a marathon on 3 days of running a week, I strongly discourage it.  It’s simply not enough stimulation of your system to get the training you need to run 26.2 miles.  Yes, you CAN do it, but race day is going to be much, much harder if you choose this route.  I recommend 4 days at minimum. Very advanced runners choose to run every day or even run twice a day, only resting when they truly need it.  This is an extreme approach to marathon training and I only recommend that you try it if you have maxed out all your other options and you are experienced and healthy.  Just about everyone else should stick to at least one rest day a week and more often two days.

Your weekly mileage should at least be 40 miles per week at your peak for the marathon.  Of course, I’ve seen runners race a marathon on 30 miles a week, but again, this is not a great idea.  The top end mileage for experienced, but non-elite runners could be in the 50, 60, or 70 mile per week range, but I would say most people do well in the 40-60 mile range.  Sure, some people go way higher than that, but the vast majority of runners don’t need to go that high.

How to Determine Mileage for Marathoners

Part of what will determine your mileage is how long your miles take you to run.  If your relaxed easy pace is 10 minutes per mile, you’ll run 6 miles per hour. In 3 hours, you’ll get in 18 miles for your long run.  The three hour mark is important because that’s when the aerobic benefits of your run start to decline, your form starts to really suffer, and your risk of injury goes up.  Now that doesn’t mean you can’t run longer than that or shouldn’t run longer than that, but you really aren’t getting great benefits from it.  If you really want to get that 20 miler in, finishing in 3:20 isn’t going to wreck you, but the extra couple of miles are really more for the mental benefits than the physical.

Okay, so what’s the time commitment for the marathon?  Well, at our peak, we’ve got our 3 hour long run, and we’ll want to run about an hour on the other 3 days, give or take, so that’s 6 hours.  More advanced runners will be running in the 8-15 hours per week range.

run better with a busy life

You Need More Than Just Running

The time committments I mentioned above is just the running. This doesn’t even include strength training, stretching, warming up, plyometrics, foam rolling, planning your meals and snacks, lying on the couch because you’re exhausted, showering and getting dressed twice a day, shopping for new running shoes, or doing all the extra laundry you’re about to produce.

This is exhausting just talking about this!

Now I don’t want to discourage anyone from really going for training for the race of your life because of how much time it’s going to take.  Doing anything worthwhile is going to take time and a commitment.  And of course, part of the lure of running is the time that you have all to yourself away from everything else you are doing!  But with smart planning, you can maximize your training time and minimize the negative impact it’s having on the rest of your life.

Does “Run Less, Run Faster” Really Work?

Running less and being able to run faster is a really attractive concept.  In fact there are books and training plans designed to do just that.  The idea is that you run only 3 times a week, and you are running pretty hard on those days.  What they don’t mention in the catchy title is that on most of your non-running days, you should be doing some other kind of aerobic cross training like biking or swimming.   

From a time-saving perspective, you’re not really spending less time exercising.  Instead of getting your nice and easy aerobic work from slow running, you’re spending that time on the bike. This can work well for some athletes who don’t handle higher mileage due to the pounding of running. But I would argue that you’re getting more impact from pounding out fast miles than what you do on a 4 mile jog.  Now there are lots of ways cross training can be great for your running, which I’m not going to go into now, but running less isn’t necessarily saving you time here.

Have A Plan to Maximize Your Time

So how do we actually save time and still get in all the training we need?  My first tip is to have a plan.  When you actually have to make a decision every single day about what you will do and when, it is mentally draining.  You can get a training plan online, hire a coach, or write a plan yourself, but have a plan and put it on your calendar like anything else.

Studies have shown that the most consistent exercisers are the ones that do it first thing in the morning when nothing else gets in the way.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t be consistent if you prefer to work out in the afternoon!  You just have to pick a time that works for you and your lifestyle.  It should be a time where you have the least amount of friction or potential for interference from the rest of your life.  For some people, that’s after the kids are in bed!  As long as you are getting enough sleep, the time of day doesn’t matter too much.

Keep the Plan Flexible

Now that you have your plan that you are diligently going to adhere to, give yourself the grace to be flexible with it.  Even the best planning will not work out perfectly all of the time, so don’t beat yourself up if you miss a run.  If you can move the run later in the week, that’s great, but for the most part, let whatever run you missed go and move forward.  As long as you don’t make skipping runs a habit, your fitness will be just fine.

Batch Your Training

My next tip is to batch your training.   See what you can do that serves double duty.  For example, you know you need to warm up for your runs and you know that you need a little plyometrics and mobility work.  Why not make your warm up work harder?

You could do jumping jacks or skip rope for 3 minutes before your run.  Then spend 2 minutes doing a little dynamic stretching and then throw in a few lunges and air squats just for fun. Boom, plyos and mobility done, ready to run.

When you are back from your run, take 10 to 15 minutes to do some strength training.  Lunges, squats, deadlifts and planks are key exercises for runners and 15 minutes of this 3 times a week, especially if you grab heavy weights, will make a massive difference in your running.  By stacking your strength training on the back of your runs, you are only getting sweaty once and you don’t have to carve out another day to focus on strength.

Concentrated Effort Is Good Training

The other bonus to this is that it’s not just time saving, it’s smart training.  When you piggy back your strength training on your hardest days of running, you are concentrating your hard efforts, which allows you to stretch out your recovery.  Instead of running long Sunday, doing strength on Monday, then trying to run a workout on Tuesday, you leave Monday free to rest or do an easy jog.  This allows you to fully recover from Sunday and be fresh and fast on Tuesday.

But you might be thinking, “wait Coach Claire, you just added 20 minutes to my run with this strength and stretching stuff!  We’re trying to save time here!”  Yes, that is true, but hopefully it is saving you time during the rest of the week since you are getting everything knocked out at once.  But, if you are not doing any strength training, plyos or mobility right now and you have a very limited time to exercise, I would recommend that you shorten your run by 10-15 minutes and add this in instead.  Losing a mile or so of running is far less impactful than skipping this work, so let’s figure out a way to get it in.

Squeeze In Small Doses

Another option if you don’t want to trim miles is to find ways to squeeze this into your day.  Five minutes of jumping jacks or squats in between your Zoom meetings isn’t going to make you break a sweat.  This is probably harder to build as a habit if it’s random, but there are ways to make it happen.

The next thing to look at is how are you spending your rest days and the time you are not exercising.  You absolutely need rest and recovery to grow as an athlete, but that does not mean literally no movement.  

Find ways to sneak some extra walking in.  Maybe you pace the floor during phone calls or park farther away from the grocery store.  This might seem trivial, but it really adds up and improves your total fitness.  You can get away with far fewer running miles in your training if you are logging walking miles into the rest of your life.  If you’re running as much as possible and then collapsing on the couch for the rest of your day, I would argue that your training is not balanced or as productive as you think it is.

Choose Your Goal Wisely

The marathon gets all the love and it’s an amazing accomplishment to complete one.  But if you simply don’t have the time to get all the work you need in, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  Or maybe you don’t seem to have the time because you really don’t want to give up pancake breakfasts with the kids on weekends or sleeping in late or (my personal favorite) long hours gardening in your backyard. 

The marathon isn’t the only worthy distance out there! You can be a complete beast at the 5k in a fraction of the time you need to invest in marathon training. 

Endurance running, by definition takes a long time, so find something that inspires you and fits your lifestyle, and then train for it really, really well.

To listen to the podcast version of this article from the Run to the Top Podcast, click here.

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About Claire


Coach Claire has helped hundreds of runners chase their dreams and conquer big goals. Her coaching philosophy combines science-based training, plant-based nutrition, and mindset techniques to unlock every runner's true potential. She's an ASFA certified running coach, sports nutrition specialist, a 2:58 marathoner, mom, and borderline obsessive plant lover.

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