How This Entrepreneur, Ironman Triathlete, and Mom of Two Makes Time for Herself
Never Give Up Training owner Ali Cook Jackson talks about the challenges of adding children to the mix and how she manages to juggle work, family, and training.
Ali Cook thought she was going to the Olympics.
This wasn’t some childhood pipe dream. The Philadelphian was a nationally ranked show jumper and traveled across the country to compete in equestrian events. That is, until she was 16, when a muscle in her left leg started to tighten up. The pain grew so intense that she couldn’t put weight on her foot, and her leg was so swollen that squeezing her riding boot over it proved impossible. Finally, a surgeon opened up her leg and discovered her muscle had turned black and become necrotic. It was the victim of compartment syndrome, a rare disease that involves a muscle tightening up to the point of losing blood flow. The doctors gave Cook the line that no one ever wants to hear: She’d be lucky if she walked again, let alone rode a horse.
But Cook hadn’t become an Olympic hopeful for nothing. She not only returned to horseback riding but eventually began competing in Ironman triathlons, the grueling races during which contestants must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles — a full marathon — all in one event. And she opened up her own gym, the aptly named Never Give Up Training, in Manayunk. “I wanted a safe space where people could come who might not know what they want to do, where there would be both the fittest and the least fit people out there,” Cook, now Cook Jackson, says. “I had no idea, and there’s so many people that have no idea what they want to do. Everyone walks in, and they’re like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ You just need to believe in yourself a little bit.”
You’d think that would be the end of the story — passion discovered, career established, happiness obtained. But turns out life keeps giving out challenges even when you find your purpose. For Cook Jackson, that latest test involves trying to run her business, train for races, and raise two small children. “I’m dealing with that new transition now, and each day is a new challenge,” Cook Jackson says. “But what I remember is that it can always get worse. I tell myself, ‘You’ve been at rock bottom, and that’s not now. Keep going.’”
Given how wise she seems, we asked Cook Jackson to talk about how she juggles her responsibilities and provide some tips for parents with young kids who are trying to navigate the dizzying new chapter of their lives.
On working out: “Before children, I was always working at the studio with my clients or working out. Now I am budgeting my time and still trying to figure out that balance of when I want to work and when I want to be with the kids. I have a good split: I work three mornings and two nights, and the rest I’m with my kids. My workouts are where I struggle the most because I demand and need to spend time with the kids when they’re young. I’ll squeeze a workout in at the gym if a client cancels or wake up at 4 a.m. to do it before the kids wake up, but my Ironman training has definitely taken a back seat. I signed up for one last year as a goal after I had my son, and I had to pull out because it would sacrifice too much of my family to do it. I can do an Ironman in 10 years again if I really wanted to, but my kids will never be one and three again. The Ironman is who I am; it’s what I love; it’s how I feel most myself. I signed up for an Ironman in the fall, and I’m hoping to do it, but right now, my priority is family and my business.”
Tip: “Make time for yourself when possible and budget for it. Spending $15 or $20 on a babysitter so you can go for a run or take your favorite class for an hour may seem like a waste of money, but it’s worth every penny. Having your own time and staying healthy makes you a better parent.”
On nutrition: “My experience with horseback riding taught me not to put all my eggs in one basket and to try to find balance. That can be with big things, like I talked about being family and business-focused rather than Ironman-focused, but it can also be day to day. It can be eating. I can have a paleo breakfast and lunch and then go out to dinner with friends. I can have a bottle of wine if I’ve had a rough week.”
Tip: “Accept the change of lifestyle now that you’re a parent and enjoy the ride. Be kind to yourself and remember that the kids are only young once. If you miss a workout because you wanted to stay home and cuddle or play with your kids, then do that. Don’t beat yourself up about it! If you want to have a fun pizza night with them, DO IT. Being healthy is also being MENTALLY healthy. Take each day, day by day, because being a parent is a marathon, not a sprint.”
On leading by example: “We recently moved, and I have all this horse stuff lying around to put away. My daughter looked at a picture and said, ‘Mommy’s horse. I want to ride a horse!’ And I said, ‘You will if you want to.’ My husband said, ‘You would let her ride?’ I said, ‘Of course I would.’ I want her to do what she wants to do because I never want her to feel like she has to give something up. I think I made that connection because now my daughter’s old enough to hear these stories and observe me and see what I do every day. And it’s important that I show her and take what I learned from the horses and show my kids and myself that no matter what happens every year, every day, no matter what happens, you can’t give up. Dream big, work hard, and never give up. The best way to do that is to show them.”
Tip: “Practice what you preach! We tell our kids all the time to eat their veggies, so you do the same. Show them what it’s like to be healthy. Make this a priority, and it will suddenly become your priority, too. If your kids see you working out or know that you are going to do that, they will follow your lead. If you eat healthy, cook healthy, and are happy… they will want to be just like you.”
On balance: “There was a long time there where I didn’t know what would make me happy. What makes me feel alive is my family and being able to honestly having that struggle, having to juggle the business and Ironman and my family. Just knowing that those things make me happy — I’m proud of that. A lot of people go through their whole life sometimes and don’t know what makes them truly happy. This is it for me right now. I’ll struggle every day to figure out how to balance the three of those because I know that makes me feel alive.”
Tip: “Plan ahead. Set your intentions for the week. On your calendar (if you don’t have one, GET ONE ASAP!), plan what time and what you will be doing for your workout. Make sure it’s realistic. A 30-minute sweaty workout can be just as effective, if not more so, than an hour or more. And then meal prep! On this same calendar, write what your meals will be for the week and shop every Saturday and Sunday for them. Then they are cooked and ready to go with no excuse to eat junk.”