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How I Found a Healthy Balance of School and Triathlon

By Kenan Pala | Nov. 07, 2018, 3:41 p.m. (ET)

Kenan Pala

I’ve been running 5ks since I was 9 years old, but it wasn’t until the sixth grade that I started to take running seriously. Now, that seriousness has transformed into a goal of someday qualifying for the Olympics. 

Training for this big goal has been difficult, but it is not impossible. Sure, I get tired, and more times than not I find myself asleep before 9 p.m. But finding the right kind of training that fits my schedule has been the biggest change.

During a typical week, my training consists of 4-mile sprint sets to help me improve my pace for the 5k. Weekends are devoted to long runs and bike rides. This combination of activity strengthens my endurance so I can hold a faster pace for longer periods of time. 

Juggling School & Training

My biggest training challenge came at the very beginning. I’ll admit I had some difficulty juggling my academics with my athletics, and the toll it took can be summed up with one word: stress. I shared this with my coach, and we came up with a better training schedule.

If I had something big going on in school or another area of my life, I would train less. The schedule still had specific times and durations but was a little more flexible.

Besides, any good training plan has phases to it. In the beginning, it’s all about preparing for the meat of the program. You’re establishing habits and building a foundation that will help you get comfortable with your new schedule. Then, you can really amp up your workouts and move into the next phase of your training plan.

I like to think of this phase as a competition with myself. Each week, I work at increasing the intensity of my runs. The focus shifts to pushing myself beyond what I did one week, two weeks and even three weeks ago. After all, I’m testing the limits of my body.

My coach and I have also built in some time for me to taper off my workouts. If I’m going to compete in a race, for example, I don’t train as much for about one to two weeks before the event. It’s a way of improving my performance during an actual race.

Chase your biggest dreams

Training at my age is also about striking a balance between athletics and the rest of my life. It’s not like my only dream is to compete in the Olympics, so my training schedule must make room for other things outside of sports.

For instance, Max Aaron might have been vying for a spot on the 2018 Winter Olympics U.S. Figure Skating Team, but he still went to community college (and worked as a waiter) while spending three hours a day on the ice.

Jennifer Page has also successfully balanced academics while training to make the 2020 Olympics U.S. women’s wrestling team. It took her six years to earn her bachelor’s degree, but she still did it all while training more than three hours a day.

While training, I’ve come to understand running isn’t just a physical sport; it’s a mental one as well. It’s like what my dad always tells me about car racing: The fastest car rarely wins. More times than not, it’s the best driver.

The driver is like my mind. It has control of my body, so I have to make sure to keep a positive mental status as I push myself toward my goal. Otherwise, I probably won’t make it to the finish line — literally and figuratively.

It’s important to be aware of the next steps in life, which I try to do with running to keep a better mental outlook. And this outlook has helped me improve my pace and lower my time. I’m now at 17:30 for the 5k — a 1-minute, 30-second improvement in one year.

Before seriously training, I actually hit a wall with my running. I thought I couldn’t get any faster than my record time. But once I started training, became more aware of the work ahead and accepted all the things that come with this new goal, I began to see small gains.

If I can commit to this goal and balance school and training, you can, too. It’s all about taking the first step in the right direction.

Kenan Pala

Kenan Pala is the 14-year-old founder of Kids4Community, a nonprofit that helps kids and their families give back to their communities in meaningful ways. Kenan also founded Kids Tri Hard, a clothing line that provides more affordable clothing options for youth triathletes. As a result of his passion for entrepreneurship and philanthropy, Kenan was recognized as one of the top 10 youth volunteers in the U.S. by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.