In the ultrarunning world, there are innumerable stories of athletes fitting training in around work. Run commuting, lunch runs, and standing desks seem to dominate the conversation. For many people, balancing ultramarathon training with physically demanding jobs, including construction, plumbing, and powerline work may seem infeasible. That’s not true. The sport is full of successful blue collar athletes, even if they are not often highlighted. With some extra planning and considerations you can find success in ultramarathons while balancing a physically demanding job.
What Qualifies as an “Active Job”
Before coaching, I worked in the Land Surveying Industry and spent many days working outside. Field days ranged from standing on your feet all day with little walking, to hiking many miles off-trail in difficult terrain while carrying heavy equipment. The latter was usually our working interview for new candidates because quitting directly after was a common occurrence.
For the purposes of this article, any occupation that makes you physically tired is considered an active job. These include but are not limited to nurses working on their feet all day, letter carriers in cities walking hours each day, and construction workers lifting heavy materials.
Does an Active Job Count as Ultramarathon Training?
Athletes frequently ask whether their jobs count as training, or how to account for the energy expenditure and effort required for work. It depends, of course, and every job is different. If you are inspecting power lines in rural areas and hiking for hours on end, it will certainly account for some portion of sport-specific training volume. However, few jobs fall within this category.
If you are on a construction site pouring concrete and bending rebar for a retaining wall, you may very well be tired after, but the work is likely not specific enough to result in any beneficial adaptations. In most cases, you will not be accumulating a high enough intensity for a long enough duration to make a significant positive impact in your ultramarathon training. There could be some small benefit to 8 hours of very low intensity or “Zone 0” work but it is likely negligible.
However, with limited time and increased fatigue, the following training considerations remain the same.
Timing Your Workouts
If you work an active job you already know that training after a long and difficult day can be more challenging than sleeping in on a Saturday to begin your long run after coffee and pancakes. On workdays, ideally you will be able to perform high quality workouts in the morning before work. It may require waking up significantly earlier. To accomplish this, be disciplined with your time, set an alarm for when you should go to sleep to keep yourself accountable, and maintain good sleep habits (covered in a previous CTS podcast).
If extenuating circumstances don’t allow you to get to sleep early or your job starts at 6 A.M. or earlier (as many trade jobs do!), you may be forced to fit your workouts in after work. It’s not ideal, but almost no one’s training is ideal.
To make late day workouts work for you, make them an integral part of your routine. Bring your workout clothes to work and change at the end of the day. Shoot for trails near your work site or along your drive home. If you plan to run from your home, get right out the door. If you linger too long and start to unwind it will only get harder to leave. You may just surprise yourself and have great workouts after some of the hardest days; the human body is incredible!
Blue collar ultramarathon runners are typically Time-Crunched Athletes as well, but with a twist. You are also a recovery-crunched athlete. In the case of physically-demanding careers, work is not high-quality recovery. From a recovery standpoint, working at a desk certainly beats hauling concrete bags up flights of stairs. Hours spent on your feet are hours when you are not recovering. Keep this in mind when planning your training and when comparing your training to others.
If you work on your feet all day, reduced recovery time is a reality you must contend with. Training stress outside of work must be focused and intentional. You will not be a high-volume, low-intensity athlete. You must concentrate your workload to meet the demands of a full-time job and leave additional time for recovery as well.
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On workdays, focus on high-quality interval sessions (Running Intervals, Tempo, or Steady State) with easy recovery runs, or rest days in between. On weekends (or whichever days you have off) harness your availability to get more volume with a long run or back-to-back medium-to-long runs, depending on where you are in your training. This is not a license to destroy yourself with hours on the trail each weekend, but when it’s appropriate, weekends will provide the most time and energy to get in some long days.
It is worth noting that with such limited time and high levels of fatigue, you are likely not a good candidate to incorporate strength training for performance benefits or injury prevention. You will be able to get the most effective training benefits simply by resting more. Plus, most active jobs will already include work that builds strength more than a desk job.
Nutrition and Hydration
Maintaining sufficient caloric and fluid intake is more important and more difficult if you have a physically demanding job. Your fluid requirements will definitely be higher than athletes with sedentary jobs. Your caloric needs may be higher as well. Getting behind on either of these will impede recovery and inhibit workout performance. To stay on top of your demands, prepare nutritious lunches, bring plenty of water, and keep extra snacks on hand.
I have seen many trade workers go all day without drinking water, and perhaps only consuming an energy drink at lunch. Do not fall in with the crowd. Bring extra bottles in a backpack, or put a large jug in the truck. Playing catch-up after work will not cut it. You are an ultraendurance athlete and hydration is critically important! You may need a few extra trips to the bathroom but that’s a small price to pay for keeping your body hydrated.
It can also be common for blue collar jobs to work through lunch or take an abbreviated stop to get snacks at a gas station. It is up to you to ensure you are getting enough food. Pack a full lunch and take the extra minutes to eat it. With varying workloads it is easy to end up packing insufficient food. I would keep a pack of sports nutrition bars in the truck to supplement on days where I found my stomach growling at 2 o’clock and had a Tempo Run to complete after work.
Every active job has different demands and limitations, but you must take responsibility for staying fueled and hydrated. It may require standing up for yourself and your specific needs or simply being more diligent.
Change Your Perspective
Working an active job presents challenges for an ultrarunner. Everyone faces challenges with their training, these just happen to be yours. If you are as chatty as I am during races you have certainly met other runners with similar situations. It is not a rare story but tends to be underrepresented in trail running media. There are also advantages to physically demanding jobs. Working physically hard all day and running hard builds mental toughness and grit others may not have on race day. You likely have greater generalized strength than your desk-sitting peers. You are not subject to the issues that arise from being completely sedentary outside of running, such as bad posture, tight hip-flexors, and reduced sleep quality.
Most of all, blue collar ultrarunners shouldn’t consider themselves disadvantaged athletes. Plan for and mitigate the negative effects of your physically demanding job, but always keep the positive effects at the forefront of your mind. What you view as a challenge may just be your greatest asset!
By Adam Ferdinandson,
CTS Expert Ultrarunning Coach