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5 Qualities of a Successful Triathlete

By Joe Rich | Jan. 10, 2019, 6:03 p.m. (ET)

Cyclist holding bike with confident posture

I’ve spent half of my life in endurance sports, from cross-country running, to road cycling, to all distances of triathlon, and everything (well, most things) in between. In all facets of these sports, we often get caught up in the results—our outcome-based goals—and try to force our way through training in order to get to that desired result. Beyond the training, however, there are a few other key characteristics and traits that we need to possess for us to truly approach the desired outcome. These are things that folks at all levels require, from spin-class enthusiast to IRONMAN athlete, in order to properly tackle their fitness dreams.

1. Honesty

One of the first things you can do on race day, for triathlon in particular, is be honest—and it begins at the swim. YOU get the option to start with whomever you want, at whatever pace you feel, based on YOUR perception of your swim ability. I’m sure 99 percent of triathletes without a swim-specific background, from youth to collegiate competitive swimming, can safely say they have over-swum the swim portion of a race, leading to a less-than-ideal outcome by race-end.

This is applicable to all aspiring athletes or enthusiasts. A fitness class (indoor cycling, for example) is going to have participants of all sorts of ability levels. A first-timer would be doing himself or herself an injustice by trying to keep up with the rider who has ridden for years, and would likely be unmotivated to return by doing so!

This doesn’t mean either athlete cannot obtain those standards of their peers. But they are more likely, in the long term, to reach that goal with a bit of honesty (and another trait, to be discussed later on). Honesty in our expectations correlates remarkably with success and mental fitness. Reasonable goals and potential outcomes leave us the opportunity to find satisfaction, so our mental fitness can find ways to strengthen.

2. Be a “Psycho”

Yes, I know I just said mental fitness is important. But some would say that you have be a little bit “off your rocker” to do all this. Seasoned endurance athletes know this and are familiar with their “crazy” rituals. Training double-digit hours weekly. Eating gross gels and chews while training. Drinking way too much sports drink. Blowing off plans with friends and family. Sometimes, sport takes over your life!

Frankly, I'm not sure you can get through this life without being just a little bit crazy! IRONMAN athletes hear it all the time—how silly/crazy/psychotic they are to be doing such activities. But “psycho” is probably the wrong term. People find it psychotic when you make sacrifices … especially when those sacrifices are things they might not be willing to give up. Taking a spin class instead of grabbing drinks with friends. Racing a half marathon instead of getting brunch on a Sunday.

So do you have to “be a psycho?” No! But you have to be crazy enough to make sacrifices, dedicate your free time, be a little selfish, and stay focused for long periods of time.

3. Bravery

More often than not, the biggest fear athletes have of trying something new, be it a new sport, new running shoes, or a new gym, is fear of failure! “The bike course is daunting.” “That class is only for super-fit athletes.” “That race is far too hilly for me.” “I could NEVER have the time for that!” I can say with certainty that EVERY athlete has faced failure. And it’s at that point when you just have to be bigger than fear. I have failed, in sport and in life, many times! But each time you fail is an opportunity to learn. And when I was tasked with a certain workout or race, and failure would be imminent, I would take what I learned and be BRAVE.

TAKE that first fitness class or challenge. Go try a new style of racing. Attempt that 5K again! Go – do it! Be BRAVE! You have to be brave in the face of failure, because failure is the only way to learn what works, what doesn’t and, ultimately, how we get better as athletes and humans.

4. Patience

"Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Success isn't created overnight. A 70.3 mile multisport race isn't won in the first six strokes of the swim, the first five miles of the bike, the first 10 hard strides of the run, or in the amount of ego-talking going on in the staging area. In the big picture, if your goal race is in July, your hardest workout will not be on November 1.

If the first run, workout, or gym session en route to your first 5K, or even just your fitness journey, doesn’t go quite as planned…well, good! It likely won’t! And that’s OK. Like many good things in life, your fitness and athletic goals are going to take time, and your patience will be a virtue.

We all have goals, and if you're the psycho as described above, you probably want your A-race to be tomorrow. But amidst the ups and downs, hard days and easy days, and stressors of everyday life, it takes perseverance through patience in order to see the end goal.

5. Go With Your Gut

When I think of this final characteristic, I go back to a half-Ironman that I competed in a while back. At the start of the run, I wasn’t in the greatest place, both physically and mentally. My mind was aware of fatigue. But my GUT went to battle. Your gut will give you the best intuition of what you NEED to do in order to obtain your goal. In this particular race, I was veering on the edge of dehydration very early into the run. But because I faced failure before from this issue, I trusted my gut and did what it said. I changed up my nutrition at mile 0, went straight to positive imagery, and dug deep. More importantly, my gut told me the things I needed to hear. I CAN do this. It would tell me that in training, too!

When I was coaching track, I would often give my distance runners some form of information during each lap. The window to "chat" with them is short, so you have to be concise, whether it be a lap split, their placement in the race, a correction to form, or yelling at them to get their head in gear. I can't tell you how many times that words spill out of my mouth while my athlete passes, and I have no idea what in the world I just told them. But on their final lap, especially at larger events or races, I always like to shout, "Have fun.” There comes a point in any situation where it doesn't matter what advice you get. You have to trust your stuff and dig deep … and have some fun along the way.

What other things do you need? Well, for starters, a good pair of sneakers and a water bottle will certainly help! But in terms of intangibles, and the little things, the “stuff” above is going to carry you a long way. There will be good days and bad days and everything in between. Some 5Ks won’t go perfectly. You won’t feel amazing after every workout. But your patience, your willingness to sacrifice, your honesty, and your ability to be brave, will allow you to have more good days than bad days. And on all of those days, your gut will tell you how to persevere.

Joe Rich is a USAT Level 1 Coach, a Level 3 Coach for OutRival Racing, and the Operations Director of Cycle Life Studio in Whitman, MA, all of which are part of the QT2 Systems Family of Brands. You can contact Joe by e-mail:

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.