A Team Effort
In the Corona household, almost every minute of the day is accounted for. That’s how it has to be if Mike and Jen are going to cross the finish line in 17 hours or less.
Mike laces up his sneakers by 5:30 a.m. He’s in the pool 12 hours later, on his way back home at 7 p.m. and asleep before 10. He’ll spend a good chunk of the weekend on his bike. In between, he holds a full-time job and coaches youth sports at the North Area Family YMCA in Liverpool.
His wife, Jen, has a rigorous training schedule as well. She runs, pedals and swims at the agreed-upon times when Mike is available to watch their three boys, ages 4, 6 and 8. In addition, she works at a part-time job. Planning and sticking to preparation regimens for their upcoming 100-plus mile triathlon events is an exhausting trek in itself.
“It’s truly a partnership,” Mike says. “We support each other. Some weeks, she’s supporting me so I have most of the workout time, and other weeks, I’m supporting her. It’s very important not to go tit for tat.”
It often seems impossible for parents to balance work, family and exercise—especially when exercise is the least important of the three. Routines get broken for special occasions or illnesses, and the idea of starting over is daunting. But supportive children and a partner who has also embarked upon a fitness quest can make a difference.
Sometimes, Jen Corona explains, that support network can be expanded beyond the family. She and four friends hold “exercise dates” two mornings a week where two women take a turn watching the children while the others go for a run.
“That’s replaced what used to be our coffee dates,” she says.
Two of the Coronas’ three boys haven’t started full days of school yet, so Jen has had to be resourceful to find exercise time without relying too much on babysitters or day care. She can do much of her work for the CNY Fertility Center from home using a laptop computer. She also brings it to the YMCA to keep an eye on important emails.
Mike gets his swimming training in at Syracuse University from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Jen then goes to the YMCA pool after Mike gets home. On weekends, one spouse goes for an 80- to 100-mile bike ride in the morning and the other goes in the afternoon. It’s the same idea on Sundays, but their exercise that day is limited to running for one or two hours each. Each parent has special time with the boys on both days, taking them out for breakfast, to a playground, or the museum or movies. In the winter, the boys often join their parents at the pool.
Television is now a thing of the past. Mike and Jen still haven’t watched any of the 30 episodes of their favorite shows that they taped more than a year ago.
Maintaining a nutritious diet is another challenge. Mike cooks for himself and Jen, and, he admits, his meals can be pretty boring: chicken, salad, raw vegetables or eggs. Jen cooks other food for the boys, although all three are aware of their parents’ special diet and open to trying new and potentially healthier foods as their taste buds mature.
Making lunches, laying clothes out for school or preschool, and other preparations are taken care of at night or during the early-morning hours. But even with such a strict schedule, things happen. Mike has missed only 10 workouts in the past three years, thanks to his wife’s sacrifices.
“I’m more likely to miss workouts because I’m a mom first,” Jen says.
Staggering each other’s regimens also allows the Coronas, who live in Cicero, to reach peak performance levels at different times. Jen’s event in Lake Placid is scheduled for July 2012. Mike, who previously won the Green Lakes triathlon, is preparing for a World Championship Ironman event in Las Vegas in November 2012. The longest workout sessions take place in the weeks leading up to the competitions, so each spouse must scale back training time at some point to allow the other to maximize his or her potential.
The children, meanwhile, play a key role by sticking with their routines and by wearing “Team Corona” shirts to the competitions and ringing cowbells. They have already participated in youth foot races and look forward to their first triathlons some day.
“For us, it’s about setting a good example,” Jen says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
Kristen and Dan Smith, of Syracuse, have a similar pattern of give and take. But in their case, Dan runs foot races and requires less training time than his wife, who is preparing for summer triathlon events. They have a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old and 21-month-old twins. Dan has a podiatry practice and Kristen is works as an attorney part time.
In the summer, Kristen trains up to six days a week, using whatever time is available in the morning, afternoon or evening. Dan does most of his running on weekday mornings, and they train separately on weekends.
“The sad thing is we never get to go running together. It is a sacrifice,” Kristen says. “Instead of all of us doing something together, it might be him taking care of the kids.”
At times, that includes the family dinner. Kristen often goes to the gym right after work. With careful planning, she and Dan can carve out family time and avoid having to hire babysitters. But even with weekly training schedules in place well ahead of time, unexpected situations can shove exercise time aside.
“There’s always something. If a kid doesn’t sleep well, I don’t sleep well. If I miss a session, I don’t stress about it. I just want to finish the race, not win it,” she says.
At the same time, Kristen is not worried about losing her motivation to get back into a routine if a weekly plan gets disrupted. Her mood changes after missing several workouts, giving her plenty of impetus to find time to run, bike or swim and bring those stress levels down again.
She also participates in group training sessions and swimming clinics. Those programs add an element of peer pressure to keep her on track.
Kristen understands the challenges other mothers face in establishing a fitness routine. She recalls feeling guilty during workouts because she had already spent several hours away from her children while working. The key, she says, is to balance quantity of time with quality of time.
“I realized that when I was exercising more, I was a better mother because I had more energy and I was more patient,” she says. “If you get over that initial hump and see how good it feels, then you’ll start building momentum.”
She also recommends signing up for some type of event, whether it’s a 5K run, a marathon or a triathlon. That will give you a long-term goal and a sense of commitment aside from just the importance of personal fitness. Find a friend to sign up with you, or reach out to a local moms’ club to recruit others. It’s important to have a network of peers who share the same responsibilities, pressures and limitations.
In addition, Kristen advises, talk to your spouse about your enthusiasm for fitness or fitness goals, and encourage him or her to start an exercise program as well.
“If not, encourage them to have something for themselves, like a hobby or activity, and make a commitment to give them the time to do it,” she says. “This is just so it’s not just about one person.”
“Another trick that I know works for some people is to treat yourself to some new gear! Often, just buying yourself a new pair of running shoes helps get you motivated. Or even just a new pair of running shorts. For me, my Mother’s Day present to myself this year was a new bike. Literally, I was in the bike shop buying it on Mother’s Day. I made a major upgrade, which definitely motivated me. My old bike was from 2000, and it was an old hybrid commuting bike. I bought a much lighter road bike. But it does not have to be something as big as a new bike.”
Michael Knapp, a personal trainer and owner of At Your Home Personal Training, of Syracuse, has worked with several women who juggle family, careers and fitness. He offers two key points: Remind yourself how good it feels when you get done exercising. And remember: Something is better than nothing.
“A lot of women I have worked with thought they have to get back into the big classes at the gym, or back on the big (exercise) machines,” Knapp says. “But it should be all about you. You have to motivate yourself.”
Knapp promotes resourcefulness. There is a seemingly infinite number of exercises you can do using your own bodyweight, including jumping jacks and squat thrusts. And time is more plentiful than you think: There are time slots between appointments, after putting the kids to bed, or even during television commercial breaks.
“You can sit up and down from the couch 40 times during the commercial and burn a bunch of calories in a matter of minutes before your favorite show comes back on,” he says. “Then you can go a step further and include fitness in your life in 10-minute slots three different times a day. You can break fitness down into parts: strength, endurance, cardiovascular, core, balance. Who says it has to be all or nothing?”
Knapp adds that there are plenty of ways to include young children in workouts. Toddlers, for example, make great weights.
“Lift them over your head or lie down on the floor and bench press them,” he says. “As long as you’re doing it safely, it can be fun for everyone.”
Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.
Michael Davis Photos