What made you first decide to try a triathlon? Was it the lure of doing three different sports in one event? Was it because you wanted to raise money for a cause that was important to you? Was it because you had friends who were going to be training for a triathlon, and you wanted to stay active and social?
Whatever first drove you to try a triathlon, chances are your reasons for staying in the sport are now at least slightly different than when you first came into it. Things evolve and change in all aspects of our lives, and triathlon certainly doesn’t deviate from that pattern.
Over my time in the sport as both an athlete and a coach, I have observed and worked with athletes of all abilities and with a wide range of goals. While not all athletes are “competitive” in the sense that they care about where they rank comparatively to others, almost all athletes want to better themselves and strive for the next PR or the next goal distance. With goals like this, many athletes tend to become quite serious about the sport, and in doing so, they start to forget why they started in the first place.
It’s a harsh truth, but it’s a truth nevertheless: most triathletes are age-group athletes who are not going to step on the top spot of podiums at races. They won’t be making a living and bringing home a paycheck by being triathletes. Instead, most triathletes are choosing to spend their disposable income and spare time on the tools, training and energy necessary to participate or race in the sport of triathlon. This is a critical thing to keep in mind because it reinforces that at the end of the day, triathlon is what most of us are doing for recreation, for fun.
Despite the fact that most of us got started in triathlon because it’s fun, I’ve watched athletes lose their passion for the sport after a few seasons. The reasons for this vary, but a lot of the time, it’s due to the fact that many athletes put tremendous pressure on themselves to perform and are disappointed when they don’t hit the marks that they set for themselves. Along the way to trying to reach their goals, many athletes adopt a “more is better” mindset, end up overtraining, and thus get burned out. Once this happens, athletes lose their joy for the sport and either drift away from it or need to take a substantial break from it in order to reset themselves.
The top things that I wish for athletes are as follows: I hope that they are able to participate in the sport as long as they wish, that they remain healthy throughout their athletic career, and that the sport always brings them joy. The joy aspect of this is perhaps the most important because without it, the cherries on top of the sundae — personal victories, personal bests, reach goals — cannot happen. In the grand scheme of things, the amount of time athletes spend racing is minimal. It is the day-to-day training — the hours upon hours spent swimming, biking, running and strength training — that makes up a bulk of our triathlon careers. Most age-group athletes are fitting in workouts into their daily lives along with work, family and social commitments. Race day is effectively like the dessert following a really great meal; it’s the reward for all of the hard work put into training. As such, it’s important that athletes enjoy training and find it to be enjoyable.
In order to encourage athletes to keep the fun factor alive in the sport, I encourage them to participate in other activities during the offseason: Nordic skiing, fat biking, hiking and kayaking, among others. Breaking up the monotony of the normal swim, bike, run routine serves as a nice way to keep things fresh in training. I also encourage athletes to choose at least a couple of C races for fun throughout the year (turkey trots and local races benefiting charities are good examples of these). One of my favorite things to do is choose a race to dress up at; I’ve done this for runDisney events as well as local holiday races. Dressing up in a themed outfit keeps the atmosphere light and enjoyable rather than quite so serious. If athletes only race in A races (goal races), they constantly are putting pressure on themselves to perform. By incorporating some races where the sole focus is having fun, it helps remind athletes not to take themselves too seriously all of the time.
Finally, getting involved in the sport in ways other than being an athlete is a great way to keep things fun. Volunteering at a race, assisting with a kids’ race, helping out the local triathlon club, or mentoring a new athlete in the sport allow athletes to view the sport through a different lens, which can be refreshing. All of these things can collectively help athletes continuously incorporate triathlon into their lives in a way that brings them joy.
I say this to the athletes who I work for a lot: triathlon shouldn’t feel like a job to them. Once it starts to feel like a job, and therefore real work, it becomes just another four-letter word instead of something that is fun and recreational. The best advice I can give all athletes is not to take themselves too serious and to try not to forget why they started in the sport in the first place. Doing so will allow them to have fun in the sport for as long as they choose to be triathletes. Michael Jordan said it best: “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”
Laura Henry is a USA Triathlon Level II and Paratriathlon Certified Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter and NASM Certified Personal Trainer. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.
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.