How to Train When You’re Crunched for Time
How to train when you’re crunch for time? Time, of course, is our most precious asset. Yes, it beats money, your dream job, and maybe even health (I think I could make an argument for instances where health is more precious, but you get the idea). I don’t remember who I heard pose this question first, but if someone offered you right now to switch lives with Warren Buffett (assuming you are relatively young), would you? Despite his $100 billion or something net worth, he is 92 years old. Obviously, a 91-year old might take the offer. The majority of us however would not, because with all that money you cannot buy more time. And, without sounding too grim, his time is rather limited. Buffett himself even once said:
“The rich invest in time, the poor invest in money”.
When it comes to exercise, the barrier for most people is often time. Work, family, housework, mandatory court appearances a few states away for traffic tickets (sensitive topic for me at the moment), all can consume large chunks of our time and for most people, leaves exercise time on the back burner. Without offending anyone, many people probably use the “I don’t have time” excuse too liberally, and just have poor time management. But I also have worked with many people in the past who literally do not have the time, usually due to some combination of the above barriers I mentioned. Life happens.
All of us will, at some point, run into a situation where we are time-crunched, can’t do anything about it, and can only squeeze in ~15-30 minutes of exercise. For me it usually occurs when I’m traveling or have a long workday. I specifically remember a trip to California where I had an early 6am flight and my only option was to wake up early and train before the flight because I had a bunch to do once I got there. So I got up, ran hard for about 20 minutes, and did as many hex-bar deadlifts as I could in 10 minutes with the heaviest weight I manage. If you’re ever in such a scenario, I’ll provide a bunch of options to get a solid workout in with little time. But first, a quick overview of my rationale on how to train when you’re crunched for time.
Energy systems and stimulus-response
Our bodies have a few different methods to produce energy when doing various types of exercise. For simplicity we can place them into the following buckets, with examples.
Endurance or dynamic exercise (running, cycling, rowing, etc.):
- Continuous, low intensity, long duration —- (1-2+ hours at an easy pace)
- Continuous, moderate to high intensity, medium duration —- (30min at race pace)
- Intermittent, high to maximal intensity, medium duration —- (2-8min intervals / 1-4min recovery)
- Intermittent, maximal to supramaximal intensity, short duration —- (60-100m sprints with long rest)
Strength or static exercise (weight training, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, etc.):
- Low weight, high reps, short rest —- (3 x 20 leg press / 30-45sec rest)
- Moderate weight, moderate reps, short rest —- (4 x 10 back squat / 45-60sec rest)
- Heavy weight, low reps, longer rest —- (5 x 1-5 bench press / 2-4min rest)
- Moderate weight (~40-60% of max), low reps but moving the weight fast —- (8 x 3 box squats)
Generally, I recommend a blend of the above during a typical week because I believe you should expose your body to different stimuli to reduce being too one-dimensional. These are also just generalized examples that have many of iterations. Obviously, if you are preparing for a competition, you will place more emphasis on a specific type of training as the event gets closer (i.e., 400m runners aren’t typically doing 2 hour easy runs). You may also want to look into health supplements like Liv Pure to help improve your liver function and its ability to burn body fat, liv pure customer reviews found here can help you learn more about this product.
Each sample workout above elicits differing physiological responses. For endurance/dynamic exercise, the list progresses from aerobic endurance to a focus on maximal speed or power. For strength, it progresses from more hypertrophy (muscle building) type workouts to maximal speed or power.
When you’re crunched for time, it’s important to consider what gives you the most bang for your buck in the allotted time you have. A slow run or easy bike ride is not optimal if you only have 15 minutes, because the adaptations from these workouts come with prolonged durations. I recently heard Stephen Seiler, a physiologist working in Scandinavia, say something along the lines of “you get adaptations in the second hour that you don’t get in the first hour”. By the end of a 90-120min+ workout or competition, skeletal muscle fuel stores (glycogen) are low, fatigue has been accumulating, and it becomes mentally more difficult. The picture below shows muscle glycogen stores (sugar) throughout 3-4 hours of submaximal (~70% of VO2max) cycling. Low muscle glycogen can be one of the stimuli that promote adaptation to endurance exercise, and thus you wouldn’t harness those adaptations after 30 minutes at the same intensity.
Similarly, truly maximal short sprints (~100-200m) probably aren’t the best either because you need several minutes of recovery (3-5ish, maybe more) to be able to sprint maximally again. However, if you’re only goal is to be a sprinter, then maybe you’re okay with doing 3-4 quality sprints within your 15-minute time slot. The general principle is that in order to for your body to adapt, you need a stimulus/stressor sufficient enough to perturb the system. The goal is to devise something that perturbs the system within a short-time frame.
A popular study had people exercise for 5 minutes every hour that consisted of 5, 4 second bike sprints and 56 seconds of recovery compared to people who sat continuously for 8 hours. When they fed/challenged these people with a high-fat meal afterwards, those who did the short sprints and 31% lower triglycerides in the blood in response. Many people have heavily researched the concept of short-duration, high intensity exercise to optimize your time. With that being said, anything is absolutely better than nothing, so if a 15 minute walk is all your willing to do, then by all means do that. Using a greens powder is a convenient way to supplement the nutrients you may be missing in your diet. Learn more from this article: Athletic Greens AG1 Review: Is It Worth The Hype Or Superfood? Don’t Buy Until You Read This
- Continuous, moderate/high intensity (run, row, bike, or whatever other modality)
- If you’ve ever tried this, it can be a pretty strenuous workout. Basically, just go out and cover as much ground as possible within 15-minutes. To increase the workload, you could find a long hill and run or bike up it as well.
- 15 x 30second / 30second rest
- Interval training is very efficient when crunched for time. Again, this could be done on any modality (run, bike, row). If you’re more inclined to work on your speed, this may be a better option than #1, because by definition you will be able to run/row/bike faster for each 30 second interval than you could with no rest, while still building some endurance.
- Stair or hill repeats
- This is similar to #2, but the time for each interval may vary depending on the number of stairs or size of the hill. Go find a set of 20+ stairs, sprint up as fast as you can, walk/trot down, and repeat until 15-minutes is up. The advantage here is that you will get more of a plyometric/strength stimulus, and there will be less joint pounding compared to running on flat ground.
- Circuit training
- There are infinite examples you could do here. Grab a couple weights, pick 3-4 exercises, set a number of reps for each, and run through as many circuits as you can in 15-minutes.
- Example: 12 kettlebell swings, 10 lunge jumps, 8 barbell or dumbbell push presses, 8 bent over row.
- Continuous moderate/high intensity endurance
- Same as the 15-minutes #1, aside from the fact it may be hard to find a hill that is 30-minutes long. I did one of these last Saturday night after a long nap so was racing against sunlight. Walked out of my house and ran a ~2.25 mile loop a little over 2 times, covering ~4.6 miles in 29 minutes.
- Continuous low/moderate intensity endurance
- 30-minutes per day, 5-days per week is, after all, the minimum recommended exercise volume by organizations such as the American Heart Association. So for some people, a brisk walk, light bike ride, easy jog, etc. would be plenty good here. If you’re more fit, you need to up the intensity.
- 6 x 3 min / 2min recovery intervals
- If done with enough intent, this can hurt (not like an injury, but that good workout hurt feeling). You want the intensity high, but not too high that you can’t repeat it 6 times. If running, you could do these at your goal 1-mile or 5k pace. If you walk/stand for the recovery, run the intervals faster, or you could slow jog during the recovery and run the intervals a little slower. That gives you 18-minutes of work at race-pace. Since this doesn’t leave much time for a warm-up, it might be smart to start slower then speed up with each interval, with the last one at max effort.
- Continuous, moderate/high intensity + strength
- Run/bike/row as far as you can in 10-20 minutes. After, pick 2-3 exercises and do a circuit. Example: 3-5 heavy deadlifts, 6-10 pull ups, 10-20 V-ups (ab exercise).
- Continuous, moderate/high intensity + intervals
- Run/bike/row 10-15 minutes at a fairly hard, but not exhausting pace. Then do 10-15 x 30second sprint / 30second recovery
- Strength and power
- Do a superset with 2 exercises. One being either a squat, deadlift, or Olympic variation, and the other a speed/power movement. Example: 5 x 3-5 hang clean high pulls + 3-5 weighted dumbbell vertical jumps. Next, do a high repetition circuit such as: 15-20 kettlebell swings, 10-20 dips, and 10-15 weighted sit ups.
Obviously, I could go on for days with different variations. It’s not that these examples are the “best” as you can come up with other options you may find more enjoyable/effective. The idea to remember though is that with limited time, you have to think about which energy system you can target to give you the most effective workout in that time frame. If you’re new to exercise, some of the really high-intensity stuff will be too difficult to manage. In that case, just go out and do what you can – a 15-30 minute brisk walk or slow jog is plenty good because for you, that probably is enough to stimulate adaptations. Once you have a decent level of baseline fitness, if you’re stuck with 15-30 minutes you have to crank up the intensity to see benefits.