Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who completed my survey and for taking time to read my previous blog. I received over 100 responses ranging from Olympians, elite triathletes and club runners, of which I’m very grateful (Click here for my previous blog "the balancing act").
Coincidently, the "balancing act" has recently been quite topical in the athletics world with an article in Athletics Weekly (click here for article) and an interesting debate on the podcast Trackside (thanks guys for the mention by the way!).
Why did I do the survey?
I wanted to look into the barriers of progressing as an endurance athlete who works a full time job (runners and triathletes). I was interested in how many athletes are in full time work, like I am and how much they are able train.
Are these athletes more stressed?
Do they get less sleep and how are their social lives affected?
Would they give up their careers to become full time athletes if given the opportunity?
I was also curious to see if becoming a full time athlete or switching to part time work had an impact on performance.
Most of what I have found was pretty predictable, however, there were a few surprises thrown in there as well.
To begin: 65% of the athletes who took part in my survey are in full time work.
These aren't just jobs to put food on the table either. Many have careers. Doctors, physiotherapists, teachers, accountants, researchers and surveyors just to name a few. These are jobs that take years of hard work and study to get into. My career is certainly important to me and I'm proud of my job.
1. Mileage limited to under 100 miles a week if you work.
My survey concluded that the most common mileage was 60-100 miles per week (34% of athletes). I know from personal experience that this mileage is in the life consuming territory. It comes as no surprise that 65% of athletes find "time constraints to training volume” the most common barrier to progression. 5 athletes were running over 100 miles a week, with only one having a full time job. That says it all really.
2. Getting the Zzzz (Or not)
Another common issue is recovery limitations and fatigue due to work demands. Over 55% of athletes experience these barriers. It’s well documented that athletes require 8 hours of sleep. In fact, actively increasing sleep has shown to have a positive impact on performance in as little as 2 weeks (Mak et al, 2011). Of those who reported to get 8-10 hours sleep (a grand total of 22 people) 30% were full time athletes. For the majority (63%), 6-8 hours of sleep will have to suffice.
3. So why are the working athletes not getting enough hours kip?
The social butterflies getting out 2-3 times a week or more accounted for 20% of the responses. 29% only socialised once a month or less. The rest of us fell between the two. However, looking more closely, 62.5% going out the most were full time athletes compared to 14.5% with full time jobs. Working athletes don’t appear to be losing sleep due to too much partying it seems.
4. Are they counting sheep because they’re more stressed?
Almost half reported work stress to be a barrier, but interestingly only 2% reported strong feelings of current stress.
It all seems to come down to the balance of putting in the work hours along with getting in the desired training volume. Sleep and socialising subsequently fits around this where possible.
These results clearly show that being a full time athlete does free up time for adequate sleep and socialising, whilst getting in more training volume.
But despite these clear differences, I was surprised to find that only 22% strongly believed that their job limited their progression as an athlete.
5. Are we willing to be full time athletes?
If given the opportunity 67% said they would be full time athletes.
In reality, it's not that simple. Why? Financial draw backs.
If you gave up your job tomorrow you'll undoubtedly be in trouble fairly quickly without some external financial support (excluding the bank of Mum & Dad). It's not like you can make a living off races either (unless you're winning marathon majors or Diamond Leagues).
The obvious answer here is sponsorship.
British Athletics have 15 athletes on their podium world class performance programme who typically receive £36,000 - £60,000 per annum. Only 3 of these athletes are middle-long distance athletes (Muir, Sharp and Farah). 29 are on the podium potential programme receiving £23,000 - £40,000 - 12 of which are middle-long distance runners (Information from Athletics Weekly and UK Sport). British athletics funding causes yearly controversy and the reality for most athletes, it can only be a dream (only 2% from the survey were on funding).
There are small handfuls of full time athletes who aren't on Lottery funding. 7% of the surveys cohort were ”full time athletes” (two of which were triathletes and two mentioned having ad hoc work on the side). Their sponsorship varied from over £10,000 (only person), to kit drops and gym memberships. So in actual fact this small handful aren't having a great deal of support. Having a job is enviable for most.
6. Has the transition from stopping work or working part time helped an athlete progress?
This question was only applicable to 23 athletes, of which 22 answered that it had helped their progress.
Tina Muir who donned her first Great Britain vest at the World Half Marathon Championships gave me her insights. Her experience surprised me. Tina lives in the US, is sponsored by Saucony and works as a Community Manager for Runners Connect. She agreed that having a job makes it difficult to fit everything in, namely recovery, physiotherapy and strength training. She also said it encourages athletes to take “short cuts” in training. With her job she would always run from her home rather than travel to better locations to train to save time.
Tina trialled 4 months as a full time athlete. The obvious benefits was the freedom of training when you wanted and more opportunity to recover. However, she found the mental aspect of being a full time athlete unhealthy, particularly during periods of injury. The lack of routine and having too much time during the day allowed room for boredom and paranoia. Surprisingly, she saw no benefits in her training and found having the job title of a full time athlete overtaking her identity. Tina has a great blog where she writes honest posts of being an elite runner -check it out here.
Tracy Barlow’s progress in the marathon over the past few years has been fascinating. She debuted at London in 2011, running 3.52.59, ran sub 3 in 2013 and last year was 4th in the UK with a 2.32.05 in Frankfurt. Her improvements in the marathon has really inspired me and I wanted to find out more about her. It turns out that I have quite a few similarities to Tracy, which makes her even more of a role model for me.
Tracy broke the magic 3 hour marathon barrier following working a week of night shifts as a HDU nurse. At the time she was running a modest 50 miles a week due to the difficulties of fitting training around 12.5 hour days, night shifts and weekend working. A few secondments of office work and, in 2015,dropping down to 30 hours a week certainly made an impact. Tracy took Thursday’s off for her threshold run (#ThresholdThursday) allowing for adequate recovery in the afternoon. After making a move from London to Winchester, she spent some time as a full time athlete between jobs. Tracy found that the transition from the hectic working/training life to full time training difficult. Similar to Tina, she found living a life fully devoted to training boring and that she lacked focus. She would dwell on each session and actually found it had a negative impact on her training.
Consequently, Tracy went back to full time work as a nurse at a private hospital working clinic hours of 9-5. This allows her to have structured training around a consistent working routine, however, she feels that a 30 hour week would put this balance in equilibrium.
7. If the old boys could do it, why can’t we?
These two athletes show that with passion and hard work you can really achieve something in athletics whilst having a career. Potentially, the difficulties of balancing the two and the commitment you have to give makes you a tougher athlete.
If you wind back to the 1980s with the likes of Steve Jones running 2:07:13 for the world marathon record (which is still the British Record by the way) they would laugh at the thought of being a full time athlete. Training was suppose to be hard work. Running in the morning, running at lunchtime, running after work into the late evening. It’s that kind of mentality an athlete needs to succeed and maybe that’s why Jones’ British record still stands today. But on the other hand, if you asked Paula if she could have trained the way she did to run 2.15.25 whilst holding down a full time job, I doubt she would agree.
Times have clearly changed. But from my experience and from conducting this survey I have concluded the following.
A. You can achieve in athletics with a career.
But you have to really, really want it and be prepared to be very single minded. Perhaps you even need the mentality of a crazy person. What drives an athlete out of bed every morning is the desire to achieve their goals and dreams. When you nail that race, there is no feeling truly like it. It makes everything you have done and sacrificed worth it.
New goals are set and the cycle starts again.
B. Having a job that’s flexible or working part time will make it a hell of a lot easier
It’s probably the ideal way to get the balance right.
But would all employers do this? Very unlikely in the public sector. So for many, this may mean a big career change that not everyone would be willing to make.
C. Could athletics learn from Triathlon?
Athletics needs to make some changes around sponsorship so athletes can make some kind of a living giving them the opportunity to work part time or become a professional athlete. The Triathlon world seems to have mastered this. From my observations (please correct me if I’m wrong) there seems to be far more sponsorship opportunities because triathletes are able to plaster their logos all over their tri-suits and bikes. Triathletes also seem to know how to market themselves much better. They all have savvy websites, social media accounts and do a great job at promoting their sponsors. These are clear differences between the two sports and arguably runners could learn from this. Athletes need to market themselves better to get sponsors and maybe British Athletics need modernise to facilitate this.
D. Potential for a research study?
I would love to see a randomised controlled trial where a group of athletes with similar potential were either given full funding to be professional athlete vs. grinding out their jobs alongside training. Then, 6 months later, see how they have progressed. The outcome would fascinate me (so if any potential investors are game, drop me an email and please randomise me to the professional athlete group!).
Thank you to Tracy and Tina for their time talking to me and thanks again to everyone who completed the survey.
To conclude: Would I be a full time athlete?
If you gave me the financial backing and the timing was right, of course I would. But the realism of it happening is next to none. Perhaps working part time could be an option one day. For now I will continue to grind out the miles and juggle the balls of life, hoping not to drop any.
That’s my balancing act.
For me, it was about getting up in the morning, running to work, running at lunchtime, go back to work and then run home from work. It’s that kind of mentality, but I knew every stride was helping me.