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How to Coach the Overly Busy Athlete

BY Mackenzie Madison

Tips for coaches on how to deal with athletes who have serious goals—but not a lot of time.

Today’s athlete lifestyle is jam-packed—with more hours of planned activities than ever before. How can we, as coaches, help our athletes fit in the necessary training to reach their goals? The answer is creating a functional training plan, a plan that is realistic, adaptable, produces quality training and fast racing. Here are some key tips to consider when creating a plan for overly busy athlete:

Lay the groundwork

Start the process by helping your athlete define their specific yet realistic goals. Set their focus on the process necessary to obtain their outcome goal by providing a clear understanding of the season’s objectives.

Athlete compliance and success is increased when they understand the reasoning behind their training sessions. Busy athletes tend to train on autopilot, which is why we need to redirect their focus back to their training. Increasing athlete involvement greatly increases the quality of the training.

Ask the right questions

At the beginning of the season give your overly busy athlete an inclusive questionnaire that helps you brainstorm the perfect functional training plan that fits around their family, work and lifestyle.

Key items on the questionnaire include the athletes strengths, weaknesses, training availability and blockades, productive training environments, scheduling options, training partners or groups, etc.

Customize your plan accordingly

The training plan of an overly busy athlete needs to be customized in order to work with their schedule commitments. As a functional coach, you eliminate stress by planning their training around their life—not vice-versa.

This means expanding upon traditional training plans to fit your athlete’s needs. Maybe your athlete operates on a 10-day training cycle or requires two off days per week, or travels frequently for work. Your athlete is more likely to succeed and complete their training if it fits. Be clever and adaptable as a coach.

Create a streamlined schedule

Repetition on a weekly schedule works best for the overly busy athlete. Having the same type of workouts or sport on specific days provides consistency and helps the athlete get in their training faster and easier.

For example Fridays could always be easy days, Mondays are off days, Tuesday mornings are track workouts, Sunday morning is the long run, etc. Constantly mixing around the busy athlete’s schedule can wreck havoc to their personal life commitments while also increasing the chance of missed workout.

Always plan ahead

Have your athlete provide you with changes in their schedule in advance. A quick and easy way for your athlete to communicate training schedule conflicts or openings is to have them posted on the TrainingPeaks calendar.

Have them enter a comment on the date they are short on time or have a large block of time. Use this to communicate specific schedule information that could alter their training sessions, such as vacations, overtime, no bike, work travel, necessary off days, etc.

A quick, updated visual alignment of your athletes schedule and training schedule helps tremendously when creating their training plan. Try to learn the basics of your athlete’s busy schedule. The more you know about their schedule, the more productive the training plan will be.

Plan on making short-term and daily adjustments

Despite our efforts to plan ahead for the overly busy athlete, we often need to make quick, on-the-fly decisions due to unavoidable complications. Either you or the athlete has to adjust their training to get quality workouts in a limited amount of time.

Being available to your athlete is extremely helpful when they need assistance adjusting their training, but they also need to how to adjust a workout when short on time. Any training session no matter how short is better than nothing.

Guide them to stick to the planned training session but adapt it so that the quality portion of the workout is maintained. The shorter the workout, the more intensity they can perform.

Since the warm-up and cooldown will be cut short, have intervals be progressive in effort to quickly blend the warm up into the quality portion and pace their intensity.

If the athlete is questioning starting the training session either due to fatigue or other variables, have them complete the halfway test. If the athlete is able to make it halfway through the workout, then they should continue onward. If not, have them back off the intensity, duration or cease the workout entirely.

Your initial groundwork plan should have a global approach that allows for fluidity. While specific training phases have already solidified, it is it not advised to preemptively lock in all training sessions for weeks in advance.

Functional training does not force workouts on a body that is unable to handle the load. Avoid burnout and overtraining by moving week-to-week with your athlete to allow for a safe, progressive build to increase fitness.

Focus on quality over quantity

For the overly busy athlete, you want both quality training sessions and quantity. Quantity in a functional training plan is defined as consistency.  Our athlete’s training is not just one workout, but what they do consistently over a period of time.

Sporadic training is not as beneficial as consistent training. Training only on the weekend is not a consistent training program. For example: take two bakers, one that is asked to create the perfect bread and one that is asked to make as much bread as possible. Who’s bread ended up being the best? The one that made as much as possible. Why? Because they developed more experience on their craft by and learning what to do and what not to do compared to the baker who only focused on perfection. Have your athletes focus on getting the work done instead of trying to perfect their training.

Eliminate distractions for your athlete (as much as possible)

It is vital for you and your athlete to understand that an increase in schedule commitment causes an increase in distractions, stress and interferences. All that  can greatly affect the quality of their training sessions.

Multi-tasking is not effective while training due to being mentally and physically difficult at the same time. If your athlete is waiting for an important phone call from work while they are training, they are not going to get the most out of their training session nor enjoy it.

The more you try to do at all at once in your brain, the more likely mistakes will occur on all ends. It’s best to eliminate distractions as much as possible and create a distraction-free training environment.

To eliminate opportunities for distraction suggest that your athlete complete their quality sessions in the mornings whenever possible,  so that it’s out of the way and lessens the chance of it being pushed back or canceled.

Have them train in environments where they have received focused, uninterrupted training before. Encourage them to avoid busy traffic times in areas where they train. Suggest training indoors where structured, quality sessions can be completed without having to worry about what route to take, the weather or traffic.

Having your athlete put their phone away or turn on airplane mode is important for safety as much as for eliminating distractions. As tempting as distractions are, have your athlete do their best to focus on the workout.

Offer two-in-one training sessions

When short on training time, it is extremely productive and beneficial to combine  two training sessions into one. There is an art to pairing two training sessions together.

Low training volume means more opportunities to increase training intensity and include challenging two-in-one sessions. The general rule of thumb is to combine similar training focuses/zones with others.

For instance, you would not pair a long endurance session mixed in with high, short-intensity intervals, unless that’s what your race demands. Drills and form can always be included in the warmup of any training session.

Cycling sessions are the easiest to combine two workouts into one. For example, completing a group ride then finishing up with hill climbs or race-pace efforts. Another example is completing cruise intervals and/or hill repeats inside a medium long-distance run.

In summary, the backbone to a functional training plan for an overly busy athlete comes down to exposing the core training necessities while being adaptive and flexible. It is true that this style of coaching requires more time and attention, but it allows for you and your athlete to create a productive, timely and life-integrated training plan for success.

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About Mackenzie Madison

Mackenzie Madison is a professional triathlete and USAT certified coach. She has been competing in triathlon for 18 years and coaching for 15 years. Mackenzie acquired her B.S. in Kinesiology & Coaching and Masters in Exercise Physiology. She is also a former D1 runner and elite cyclist. Mackenzie is also an instructor at the University of Oregon. Learn more about Mackenzie at www.kenzmadison.com.