Training on a Limited Time Budget

By Lisi Bratcher | Jan. 17, 2017, 12:19 p.m. (ET)

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Why 20 minutes matter

So many tasks to accomplish and so little time. Even though time may be short, there are many options to make use of the available time to enjoy a shorter beneficial workout instead of skipping an entire session. Avoid the pitfalls of making decisions based on the all-or-none principle and keep the long-term benefits of your training progress in mind.

No matter what circumstances caused your restricted schedule, struggling to get up in the morning, an extra added late meeting at work or a child’s postponed soccer tournament, the same question time-crunched triathletes often face arises: Would it be worth getting ready and doing a shorter training session?

The short answer is yes, there are training benefits to a shorter, modified workout. Here are three good reasons to use the available time wisely.

1. Consistency

Training science may show that consistency is one of the most influencing training principles, but challenges to consistency are abundant. Whether your training focus is to achieve a progressive overload or is to adjust per the principles of specificity and individuality, the challenges can actually hinder your progress moving forward.

What does a consistent approach look like? Simply stated it looks like: training on a regular basis, which is as individual as each athlete. For a beginner, this could mean cardio three times per week, ideally one training session in each sport. This approach pays heed to the approach that the rest time between the endurance workouts is not more than two days. Ideally, two strengthening sessions would be done between cardio sessions. 

For an intermediate to advanced triathlete, who might even train multiple sessions per day, a consistent approach means being able to achieve at least 90 percent of the scheduled weekly sessions. If you are consistently missing several of your workouts, you might need to ask yourself if the goal you are working toward to is too aggressive. You might ask yourself which of the sessions could be turned into a shorter interval session? 

2. 3x10 minutes or 1x30 minutes = Healthy Lifestyle

Researchers have asked themselves if activity periods of 3x10 minutes spread out during the day would result in the same health benefits as continuous exercise for 30 minutes.

Currently, the guidelines for physical activity advise that accumulation of activity in 10 minute segments — as long as you achieve at least 150 minutes of moderate-intense activity minutes per week — result in significant health benefits. In other words, accumulation of 30 minutes of training in three sets of 10 minutes is equally beneficially for your health as a single 30-minute training session.

Most active people would agree that having to sustain running for 30 minutes is much harder than getting through 10 minutes, even in repeated segments. Clearly, this favors the 30-minute duration approach for a beginner, who is looking for a mental challenge.

From a training perspective it can be argued that 3x10 minutes of exercise can be sustained with higher intensities when compared to a 30-minute non-interrupted block. This would indicate an extra benefit of shorter but more intense sessions.

Interestingly, research has shown that even sporadic and repeated physical activity (less than 10 minutes at a time) is superior to non-exercising to address health issues like fighting the metabolic syndrome symptoms like fat around your waistline or high blood sugar levels.

So if it feels intimidating to find extra 30 daily minutes, go ahead and work toward squeezing in 10 minute slots three times per day.

3. Healthy Weight Management & Injury Prevention

To be able to maintain a healthy body weight and stay lean for race day, most triathletes know the three basic components for this concept:
1) Implement cardiovascular training
2) Engage in strengthening exercises
3) Ensure nutrition intake is adequate (consume healthy sources of carbs, protein and fat but resist overeating)

The endurance requirements of triathlon training are easily met with lots of swimming, biking and running. When it comes to muscle-strengthening exercises, many triathletes fail to achieve the recommended two times per week based on the physical activity guidelines for healthy adults. It is important to target the major muscle groups, no matter if with dumbbells, weighted balls, TRX or bodyweight, to improve strength. Strength training results in increased metabolism and helps to prevent overuse injuries to which triathletes are prone. That extra 20-minute workout would be well spent with strengthening exercises! 

Examples of 15-20 minute workouts:

1) Cardio Intervals (20 minutes total time)
-8 min warm-up jog
-10x1 min as (15 sec sprint/ 45 sec jog)
-2 min cooldown including light stretching

2) HIIT  (High-Intensity Interval Training) with Bodyweight Exercises (17 minutes total time)
-5 min warm-up on elliptical (alternate 30 sec forward/30 sec backward)
-2 rounds of 5x1 min (45 sec exercise/15 sec rest): pushups/squats/dips/walking lunges/rotational crunches
-2 min walk/light stretch

If there is no chance at all to get into your workout gear to do your regular training, go for a brisk walk around the block for 15 minute, since anything is better than zero activity minutes! 

Lisi Bratcher is the owner of fit.active LLC, a multisport coaching company focusing on Swimming and Sports Nutrition, based in Huntsville, Alabama. Born and raised in Europe, Lisi received a Ph.D. in Exercise Science and from the University of Vienna in Austria. Today you'll find her teaching Exercise Physiology and Health &Physical Education classes at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, as well as coaching intermediate to advanced triathletes. She is a certified ACSM Exercise Physiologist, a certified Track & Field coach, and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. Find her on Facebook at triHSV or contact her at lisibratcher@hotmail.com

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.