Balancing a successful career and the training of an elite runner is a difficult task, but lessons can be learned from Olympian Sara Treacy.

It is almost three years since the Rio Olympics and late last year Sara Treacy burst back onto the elite distance running scene with a 26th place finish at the 2018 European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg.

Her enthusiasm for running which I encountered first hand after the race was refreshing. Treacy, who has struggled with injury since racing the 3000m steeplechase final in Rio, finished 5th at the National Senior Cross Country Championships two weeks prior.

Sara went on to lead the team home in Tilburg, competed at the World Cross Country Championships last month in Denmark, and is looking towards the World Championships in Doha later this year.

The balance of work and running

Unlike most elite athletes, but much like the rest of us, Sara balances her training with work. She is a doctor in the UK (currently working slightly reduced hours) and a few weeks ago shared the madness of her schedule with her instagram followers.

After a weekend of 12.5 hour night shifts, she went out for her run at 11.30pm. That was “kind of a bit of a joke”, she laughs, having posted it because she knew some of her friends would appreciate it, knowing what she is like. She described incredibly busy shifts which are really hard to come off, noting that you’d be lucky to get a break at all. She got her sleep pattern a bit wrong and ended up sleeping all day and woke up still with her run to do which she “eventually got out and did”.

This however is not the norm, she stressed over a WhatsApp call, she would not usually run that late. That post did indicate however the challenges and demands faced by someone working full time hours and managing high level training. Something which most readers can probably relate to.

Straddling two careers

Sara has never really been a full time athlete. She took nine months to train full time in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, describing the build up to the 2015 World Championships in Beijing as a slog. Running full time worked for her for a short time but personally she prefers to balance running with her professional career.

There are a lot of practicalities involved in training full time. Sponsorship and location being the two main concerns. Where can you afford to live, do you move back home with your parents, do you have access to a good training set up, can you pay for camps and races? She wouldn’t expect people to give her money and there is not a tonne of sponsorship out there unless you have already made it as a young athlete. This is perhaps one of the reasons Irish athletes struggle to compete on the world stage.

A lot of time to think

We can all over think our running, and if you were a full time athlete, then you would have an awful lot of time to think about running. We have many things in our lives; work, family, sport, other interests, but if you remove one such as work, then your other strings just expand into that space and become even bigger.

While this can have its benefits for some, Sara would not see this as advantageous to her personally. Preferring being busy, she wouldn’t like to be hanging around between runs. She also noted that in terms of longevity it is good to have something else going on, and many athletes do successfully manage to straddle two careers albeit with a degree of flexibility.

Sara points out that just because this works for her, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. There is more than one way to do things. On the other hand though, just because some people train full time doesn’t mean it’s impossible for her to compete with and beat them. It is this point in particular that can hopefully inspire and motivate athletes out there trying to get the best out of themselves amidst the chaos of everyday work and family life.

Unpredictable Schedule

As a Senior House Officer (SHO), Sara will spend two years rotating around different medical specialities before choosing one to pursue further. She is currently nine months in. Her average work week is about 33 hours which sounds manageable, but this can vary wildly, as well as extras like exams and other things expected of young doctors for career progression.

The winter schedule was particularly difficult where she might do 60 hours one week and the following week only work one day to get the time back. She adjusts her training appropriately. On a light work week she might do more training or travel for a race, and during intense work periods she will scale it back a bit. At the busiest times just doing easy 30 minute runs before and after work to keep her ticking over.

This level of flexibility is no doubt crucial to maintaining her standard of fitness. The adaptability that Sara exhibits in relation to her variable work life is something most regular runners can learn from. Not losing the head when your plan gets derailed or changed last minute is an important skill.

Not ideal, but I just try my best with it

While she makes this sound totally manageable, I asked was this in reality very demanding? Sometimes it is “just not ideal” but being flexible has helped her get to where she is at this stage. While she like so many other athletes responds very well to a routine, not being too stuck to a rigid plan is important for her. Being changeable can be difficult, but this is the path she has chosen.

“I guess I just try my best with it and I am definitely not perfect. Maybe someday I’ll get everything absolutely right and I’ll start running amazingly well”. The instagram world can make everything seem very peachy, Sara posting some fun videos of the World Cross Country course capturing a sincere buzz, but she is indeed human and is still working at getting her own balance right.

She does not see her schedule as a barrier to participating at international level. She admits that there are probably easier ways of doing it and people seeking to balance work and running might aspire to a job that can be managed a little better with training, “As I say, just do your best”.

Take it week by week

Treacy makes the very valid point that you shouldn’t not try to compete just because you can’t do it a certain way. She has beaten people who train full time and the overall approach she takes to managing training is taking it week by week.

These words can mean a lot to anyone trying to balance their professional career and running at a their own level. It is encouraging to see her not write herself off as an athlete just because she has to work between her training sessions!

Not everyone is in a position to train full time, and others don’t want to train full time, and both, she notes, are fine. “It’s your life”. There is not one way to live it. In one line, Sara’s approach is; to work with what you have got, the choices you have made, and more or less just get on with it.

“I have a worthwhile career and I do some really great stuff and it keeps me grounded, and there is more to life than sport and I think sometimes people forget that. I guess that’s why I’ve kept doing what I’m doing for so long”.

Bláithín is a middle distance and cross country athlete who has been known to accidentally run into trees. She is in total denial about having to work for a living – you can follow her attempts at run-commuting to work on Strava.

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