As an endurance athlete who spends A LOT of time chasing your goals, have you ever wished there were more hours in a day?
In our recent reader survey, so many of you talked about time being one of your biggest training challenges. When talking about pain points, readers said things like:
- Time. Number of hours that I probably need to spend versus how many hours I have after work and kids.
- Finding the time to commit to improving fitness. Motivation at the end of the day.
- Time and competing priorities. Family commitments. I feel guilt when I’m not around for them on weekends.
- Time. During certain times of the year, I don’t get home until 6 p.m., and sometimes it’s dark.
As I was reading these responses, I was totally nodding my head and feeling you! I’m currently training for an ultra marathon while handling my dad’s probate out of state, working two jobs, renovating a condo, and trying to be a halfway decent daughter and friend. (When people ask me if I’m dating, I just laugh. When? 😆)
The point is, I can write a million posts about how to increase stamina through interval training and aerobic base training. But all of that is worthless if you don’t actually have enough hours in the day
So let’s talk about how to increase stamina when you have just 5–10 hours a week to train. Here some hacks that have personally helped me over the past few years.
Choose your goal trip carefully
Before we talk about how to increase stamina, let’s set you up for success with realistic goals.
Certain hikes, climbs, and races lend themselves to training in a time crunch better than others.
For example, it takes a lot more time and effort to train to climb Denali than it takes to train for Chimborazo, which is basically the same size!
The difference: Denali requires an expedition-style approach. That means doing a ton of strength training in addition to knowing how to increase stamina. Meanwhile, you can climb Chimborazo in a day from a hut wearing nothing bigger than a day pack.
(This is not to say that climbing Chimborazo is easy or a good choice for people with limited training time. It just requires fewer training hours than Denali.)
Follow the 70 percent rule
So how do you decide which hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering goals make sense for you given your limited training time?
If you’ve trained for an endurance goal before, you know that your most important workout is your “long hike.” (Or long run. Or long backpack.) This is the moderate-intensity workout that makes up about 50 percent of your weekly training time.
If you’re crunched for time, it’s OK to break up your long hike into two “longish” hikes on back-to-back days. This is especially common for ultra endurance events, but OK for any trip.
To train well for an event, you will need to hit about 70 percent of the distance/elevation during your longest hike/run of the training program. In other words, you should peak at about 70 percent of the goal climb distance/elevation gain.
Your peak week long run/hike can be done in a single workout, or over two back-to-back training days.
Your peak week long run/hike should look like …
- 18 miles running on similar terrain for a trail marathon (26.2 miles)
- 29 miles and 7,000 ft. for the Grand Canyon R2R2R hike (assuming the shortest route, which is about 42 miles and 11,000 ft. of gain)
- 7 miles and 3,200 ft. for Mount Elbert (the tallest mountain in Colorado, about 10 miles hiking and 4,700 ft. of gain)
For backpacking, apply the 70 percent rule to the two hardest back-to-back days of the trip.
Granted, the 70 percent rule isn’t set in stone. Someone with the requisite mental toughness may be able to bang out a hard trip with much less training. But training by the 70 percent rule will generally let you enjoy the experience more!
Some tips on goal setting when you’re short on training hours:
- I’m finding trail running to be a great sport for my time-crunched lifestyle. After a couple of years of high-altitude mountaineering, I’m shocked by how soon I’m home from my long run … and how late I can sleep in on weekends.
- If mountaineering is your bag, consider joining a guided trip, even if it’s well within your abilities. It’s amazing how much time you’ll save when someone else is handling the planning and logistics.
- Another mountaineering tip: there are a stunning number of mountains you can climb without ever carrying a heavy expedition pack or dragging a sled, which will drastically reduce your training time. Look around for trips that allow you to climb from high huts or hire porter or pack animal support.
Plan your weekly workouts ahead of time
If you’ve ever wished for the magical super power of stopping time (or making more of it), this hack is the closest you’ll ever get.
Every Sunday, take 30 minutes to sit down with your training plan and your Google calendar and map out all of your workouts for the week.
Start with your long hike/run (since it’s the most important one), and work backwards.
Some things to consider:
- What’s the weather forecast for the week? Do you need to move any outdoor workouts to accommodate it?
- Where will you do your outdoor workouts? Use Hiking Project or Trail Run project for ideas, if needed.
- If you’re working out in the gym, what is the best time to go? (Working out when the gym is less crowded can save you considerable time every month.)
- Do you need to arrange resources like child or pet care during your workouts?
- What food will you need to fuel these workouts, and when will you buy it?
How to increase stamina with the “string theory” of training
Which intensity should you work out at in order to get the greatest endurance and stamina gains in the least amount of time?
The classic endurance training model (and the one used by most professional athletes) suggests that you’ll get the optimum benefits by doing 70 to 80 percent of your training at moderate intensities. This helps you to build a very strong aerobic base that increases your stamina and ability to cover long distances.
However, it takes about 10 hours of training a week to really do base building justice. So if you have less time than that to work out, you may actually get more benefit from higher intensity workouts.
Here’s a great metaphor from Chris Carmichael, author of The Time Crunched Cyclist, on how to increase stamina.
Think of aerobic and anaerobic fitness as a continuum represented by a string.
Lifting the string anywhere along its length lifts everything around it. So if you do a lower-intensity aerobic base workout, you’re also getting some anaerobic benefits too! And vice versa.
However, the most efficient lift is at the high-intensity end of the string. High-intensity workouts train your aerobic energy system more than lower-intensity workouts train your anaerobic system.
So if you have limited training hours, shifting toward higher intensity will generally give you more bang for your buck.
This is the thinking behind CrossFit and other high-intensity workouts.
Carmichael, who coaches “time-crunched” athletes, says high-intensity training can actually be very effective for events less than 3 hours in duration.
For longer events, you’re still going to need to build some long runs and hikes into your training plan. But if you are time-crunched during the week, consider shifting some of your shorter workouts toward higher intensity.
By the way, if this applies to you, definitely check out Carmichael’s book (with Jim Rutberg), The Time Crunch Cyclist. It’s not just for cyclists! I’m reading it now and getting so much value for hiking and trail running. It’s definitely showing me how to increase stamina on a busy schedule.
Find a couple of go-to outdoor workouts near home
Shit happens. The weather turns bad. Things come up in real life you have to deal with. But do you then waste tons of energy and time desperately scanning Hiking Project for a replacement training hike?
OK, maybe that’s just me. But if you can relate, it’s time for you to find a couple of good stand-by climbs/hikes/runs you can always turn to in a pinch.
Your go-to outdoor workouts don’t have to be perfect, but they should check a few boxes:
- Located close to your home and convenient to reach.
- Known distance and elevation gain.
- Reasonably specific to your goal trip. (For example, a steep, sustained trail for mountaineering.)
For example, when I’m visiting family in Cleveland, I’ll occasionally try something new. But if I just need to get a good workout in fast, I’ll run or backpack the Furnace Run Loop. It’s short, and it’s got 300 ft. of elevation gain on every lap. It’s not the world’s most exciting workout, but it gets the job done.
Do your strength training at home
Does driving to the gym cut into your valuable time? I never thought so until I started tracking it and realized I was spending 2 hours a week driving back and forth. I immediately canceled my gym membership, and I’ve been so much happier ever since.
While I get that the gym is a lot of fun and a great social experience for some people, it’s not a necessity for most endurance athletes. About the only time it’s crucial is when you’re doing a heavy lifting phase in preparation to carry a heavy backpack. And even then, you only really need to do this kind of training for 4–8 weeks. So you could get by with day passes rather than a membership.
If you’re not training for a hike that requires carrying a heavy pack, you can keep your strength training routine super simple and focused on overall health. This totally lends itself to doing high-rep, low resistance workouts at home or on the neighborhood playground.
If you’re just getting started with strength training, here’s a post on the basics.
Check out my post on home workout equipment for advice on creating an affordable home gym.
How to increase stamina by combining strength and cardio workouts
If you have time for strength or cardio — but not both — which should you sacrifice?
The answer is … neither! So long as you’re not in a heavy lifting phase, go ahead an combine the two. There are many ways to do this:
- Body Pump
- Beach Body (on demand)
- Strength training circuits
Strength circuits are especially flexible, because you can adjust the intensity to work your aerobic, lactate threshold, or anaerobic energy systems.
These workouts are not only effective, the novelty factor can keep your training program from feeling stale.
Choose one thing to outsource this month
I used to resist delegation until I started my second business. One day I realized that the condo was a mess, there was a ring around the inside of the bathtub, the cabinets were empty of food, and I hadn’t cooked myself a healthy meal in a week.
Living that way was affecting my health and totally bringing my vibe down. I’d grown up believing that maids were only for rich people, but finally something in my brain shifted. So I started having cleaners come over every two weeks. I also began ordering my groceries online.
I thought I’d resent spending the money. Instead I felt like a new person. It was like finding the secret to life! I’ve gone on to outsource many other parts of my life and have never regretted it.
So if you’re pressed for time, pick one pain point this month and experiment with outsourcing it. You might realize that an outsourced life a) is affordable, and b) is a great way to live.
A few things you can outsource from your phone:
- Grocery shopping (check out Instacart)
- Meal prep (check out Blue Apron, Hello Fresh or Purple Carrot)
- Dog walking (check out the Rover app)
- House cleaning and yardwork
- Child care
- Answering emails and scheduling appointments (consider hiring a virtual assistant through Upwork)
- Picking up dry cleaning, library books, etc. (check out Task Rabbit)
Shopping online has also been a game-changer for me. The other day I was at the mall for the first time in about a year. Usually I resent running those kinds of errands. But it actually felt like a treat!
Focus on mental stamina, too
Even when you know how to increase stamina on limited training time, you may still need to miss workouts or cut them short. So come to terms with that fact that you may not be able to follow your training program perfectly or hit all your fitness milestones.
That is totally OK. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt your goal trip. And it doesn’t mean you will be miserable when you do.
The truth is, people who are undertrained do crazy climbs and hikes and ultra endurance events all the time. If you’ve climbed Mt. Rainier or another popular mountain, you’ve seen it with your own eyes!
Another truth: no physical training program can completely prepare you to climb a huge mountain or run an ultra. In many cases — and especially if you follow my 70-percent rule — the trip itself will be longer and harder than anything you have trained for.
So where do you pull the other 30 percent out of? Your mindset.
Mindset is completely underrated when it comes to training, but it’s probably the biggest factor impacting your success.
Have you ever climbed a mountain with someone who was super fit — and therefore expected it to be easy and pain free? How much misery did that person create for themselves versus someone who showed up ready, open-minded, and determined to work hard?
So no matter how undertrained you feel for the big day, know that you can make up a lot of ground with your brain alone. Some ways to get in the right mindset:
- Prepare to welcome all emotions and body sensations, both good and bad. Fighting discomfort just amplifies it. Accepting it and flowing with it feels better.
- Work up some patience and unconditional love for your teammates, your guides, and especially yourself.
- Thank your body for everything it does for you. Prepare to be kind to it, no matter how it feels. Practice positive, nurturing, uplifting self-talk.
- Understand that endurance goals are reached one step at a time. Be in the moment. Resist the temptation to focus on the finish line or destination. Stop doing math in your head.
New to hiking fitness? Start getting in shape with easy walking workouts.
My FREE 4-week training plan is a great way to get moving every day with beginner cardio and strength workouts! Perfect for new hikers and anyone returning from a break. Fill out the form below and I’ll send it on over.
So there you have ‘it. How to increase stamina on limited training time.
Are there any time management hacks that have worked for you during training? Comment below to share!
Originally published June 20, 2019.