Read a book on training for any sport, or just exercise physiology in general and one of the first things you’ll learn is the stimulus/response nature of training. The actual training, be it lifting weights, swimming, cycling, running, climbing, or anything else, is the stimulus. It’s also generally the reason we all got into this business in the first place. Those activities are fun! But the reason we train as opposed to just go play is the response. The goal is to become stronger, faster, build endurance, or some combination of the three.
The changes in muscle tissue that enable these effects is the response, and this happens not simultaneous with the stimulus, not immediately after, but during the process of recovery in the hours and days after a workout. This primarily happens while we sleep.
In my experience, this is where being a training parent is really challenging, and this is easily the area where I’ve made the most mistakes. We all know how little parents are able to sleep at times, and even more complicating, just how unpredictable good quality sleep can be. The effect is that it’s easier for a training parent to be in a state of overtraining than most. Maybe a more descriptive term for us parents would be “undersleeping” but the result is the same. The body is unable to reap the positive benefits of training and accumulated fatigue makes us more susceptible to injury.
To a certain extent, this is a problem that all athletes face. There is only a certain amount of training that a person can absorb and recover from in a week, and finding this balance is one of the keys to setting up a good training program. The difference for a training parent is that this number can vary wildly from week to week!
The bottom line is that training parents really have to listen to their bodies. There is no easy way to predict what a given week will bring. My primary coping strategy is a combination of planning style and prioritization. Some athletes and coaches set up workouts for a week very specifically, down to number of hours or minutes at particular intensity levels: do a one hour tempo run on this day, a particular 2 hour bike workout on another day, etc.
My approach to this problem on a week to week basis is to stay focused on the short term objectives. The yearly plan outlines these things ahead of time, planning for longer term goals at races or other events. At the beginning of the week, this weekly theme turns into a prioritized list of possible workouts. Items on the list might be as general as running speed work, or target race pace cycling.
I do what I can to fit those things into the week. Sometimes the items near the bottom fall off. Sometimes, I only get one key workout in for the whole week. That isn’t to say I do nothing physical on the other days. I do at least one session almost every day but it might be more of a moderate or even low intensity workout.
Then some weeks (months?) the kids really don’t sleep. At that point the top priority item is just to hang on and try not to accumulate any more fatigue. The bottom line is to listen to your body and take the recovery time necessary.