How to Reconcile Training with a Physically Demanding Job

I’ve been joining a friend of mine at the gym for a few months now; they’ve been training hard and I had decided to join them for some extra motivation. Working out with friends increases accountability, and that had been the case for me, too. However, a few weeks ago, my friend started a new job where they’re on their feet all the time, usually walking up to five miles a day. Suffice it to say, their motivation to go to the gym has ground to a screeching halt as they struggle to reconcile their training with a physically demanding job.

I know they want to keep up the training and hit their goals. So how can I help my friend fit the gym back into their schedule? If you find yourself in a similar spot where a workout feels impossible after a physically demanding workday, how can you do the same?

Written by Lucas Collins
Edited by Pavlína Marek

Do You Need to Do Specific Training?

If you spend your time at work walking, lifting, digging, or performing any other physically demanding tasks, you might ask, “Aren’t I getting enough exercise from my job?” and you wouldn’t be alone. Many others ask the same, believing they work out enough on the job. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

According to a Sheltering Arms Institute article, Why Physical Activity at Work Isn’t the Same as Exercise,

“Work-related physical activity is typically performed over the course of the day and is either not intense enough or is over such a long period of time that it reduces any cardiovascular benefits. Improvement in cardiovascular fitness is achieved with high intensity and short duration periods of activity.”

Therefore, even though you push your body to work harder and burn more calories (which brings benefits in its own right), it won’t help you achieve your training goals.

The article goes on to discuss how some types of work, despite being physical, might actually be detrimental to your health and training. Things like standing in one place and lifting heavy loads over the course of a long day, activities you might find yourself doing in a factory setting, keep your blood pressure too high for too long. A strain like that is rather detrimental to your cardiovascular health.

You might be surprised that lifting like that is a bad thing for your health and training when people go to the gym and do the same thing. It all goes back to the duration and intensity of the activity. Both strength and cardio exercises are much more effective in time-limited high-intensity bursts.

The answer to this question is, therefore, yes, even with a physically demanding job, you need to do specific training.

Recovery, Nutrition, Hydration

Before we discuss how to fit your training into your day or how to hack your motivation, we need to cover recovery. Recovery is crucial to prevent injuries and burnout. If you work a physical job and want to keep up with your training, you need to take rest seriously. That means sleeping, eating, and drinking enough.

  1. Sleep. You may do well on seven hours of sleep in your everyday life. However, if you start a physical job, you’re most likely to find that seven hours no longer cut it. Especially if you add on your training, you may need nine or more hours of quality sleep each night.
  2. Nutrition. You’re going to burn a lot of calories. Make sure you refuel throughout the workday as well as during your workouts!
  3. Hydration. Just like with sleep and nutrition, you’re most likely going to have to step up your game. Make sure you don’t live off a single morning cup of joe for the whole workday!

How to Make It All Fit into Your Schedule

It is one thing to know that you need to supplement exercise outside of the workplace. However, it’s another thing completely to find the time in our incredibly busy schedules to do it.

Become an Early Bird

If you’re like my friend and find the idea of going to the gym after your workday simply too exhausting, then the simplest solution would be to try and do it before you go to work. That applies whether you work morning, day, or night shifts. Your energy and motivation levels will always be at their best when your day is just starting.

However, this might be more difficult for some than for others. If you work a typical 9 to 5, the idea of waking up earlier can be daunting. Luckily, there are some tricks you can try to make yourself more of a morning person. (However, if your work starts at 6 am or earlier, this might simply not be viable for you.)

Split It Up

If you don’t feel like you have the time to commit to a full workout before your workday, you can always try to split your workout up. If you run, you can split the distance you want to go each day in half and increase your pace to compensate for the shorter run. (Double days are a training method used by many runners out there!)

As for resistance training, it’s as easy as picking different muscle groups to work for each session. While it might seem like a hassle to go to the gym or gear up for training twice a day, it’s a good option if you only have a little bit of time for it before and after your job.

Some Is Better than None

If fitting your whole training in is out of the question, you can adjust your training routine itself. You can always cut your run or workout session short. While it’s not the ideal scenario, it’s still better to get some of your training in than none at all. 

What if Time Isn’t the Issue?

If you’re like my friend, then time isn’t the biggest issue you have with your training; it’s motivation. It’s understandable, considering how busy and tiring a normal workday can be. When you have a physically demanding job, training will always feel harder. However, there are some good tactics you can implement to boost your motivation.

  1. Find an accountability buddy. One way to motivate yourself is exactly what my friend and I have done: find someone to workout with. The extra accountability of knowing someone is expecting you to be there with them is a good way to push back against that sluggish feeling.
  2. Track your progress. Another trick you could try is to very closely track your training, progress, and the days until your event. That way you can see the milestones you’ve hit and all the work you’ve put into getting where you are. Watching that calendar countdown to your goal race can also light a fire underneath you so you can keep pushing to be ready for it.

3. Find fun challenges. There are many local challenges wherever you look. Local run clubs are a great source of these fun runs. (Have you ever heard of the Berkeley Run Club’s potluck and beer runs? What about the Fort Worth Run for Donuts Run Club? Or the Vancouver Ice Cream & Donut Run Club?) If there are no run clubs nearby, you can always count on athletes who use Strava to put up some fun segments in your vicinity. There are uphill, downhill, fartlek, long track, technical trail, or road sprint segments all around the world. Go segment hunting and have some fun!

Give Yourself Some Slack, Too

While you can put everything in order to maintain your training progress and pace, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to give yourself some well-deserved leniency. Training with a physically demanding job is tough. A full eight-hour (or, in many cases, even longer) shift of physical labor is hard on both your body and mind.

Trying to guilt yourself into exercise might get you to do the training, but it might not be what’s truly best for you at that moment. It’s important you don’t overexert yourself, as that type of exhaustion will only lead to your performance suffering in both your training and your job.

This is even more important if you’re just starting a new job that demands that level of effort. It’s OK to take the time you need to adjust to the new demands of your life. You’ll be far better off for it in the long run. I know my friend will feel ready to get back in the gym with me at some point, and you will, too. Look forward to those days while doing the best you can in the present.

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