Down But Not Out: Triathlon’s Role in Healing the Body and Mind

By Mitchell Greene and Meghan Smith | July 24, 2017, 6:08 p.m. (ET)

mental health 

My name is Meghan. I am a collegiate triathlete, and I am struggling with health issues that are unpredictable and out of my control. Anxiety has built up in me because I am always feeling like I don’t know what is going on with my body. The worst is my doctors don’t know if and when my health is going to improve. At first, I thought my medical condition would ruin my relationship with my favorite sport. However, just the opposite has happened. I've realized that triathlon has given me all the tools I need to be resilient and cope with life's uncertainties. I am grateful.

The paragraph above, written so articulately by my client and article co-author Meghan, describes the darkness and underlying beauty of having triathlon in her life. Meghan was referred to me by her triathlon coach, Jason, who understood that Meghan’s challenges go beyond the fact that she is only permitted by doctors to train for 30 minutes a day. As a fine-tuned athlete, Meghan’s whole world was turned upside down because of her illness. Meghan’s dedication to training routines and group workouts could not be easily replaced, but we started by incorporating journal writing into her daily schedule. The words poured out of Meghan. She found herself writing daily about her love of sport, and the loss and shame she felt being on the sidelines because of her illness. Meghan’s writing also focused on her supportive family, short and long term goals (in and out of sport), and where in her life she did have choices she could make. I have found in my practice that, particularly for those with long-standing health issues, expressing thoughts and feelings through writing is one of the best tools we have to help manage the “mind chatter.”

Dr. Greene says, "anxiety is caused by uncertainty," and I am committing for the next month to start every day by doing something I can count on. If coach Jason has a workout scheduled for me in the morning, I will face my fears while I work on my goals! Triathlon keeps pushing me out of my comfort zone, and from now on I am going to view my symptoms just like I would a hard swim, a hilly bike or a fast-paced tempo run. It’s part of the challenge of being a competitor. I also know if I can push in the morning, it will give me confidence to strive forward in other parts of my life, like finishing my applications to graduate school, and starting new research projects with my college professor. I have to remember I have passions beyond triathlon, like my love of exercise physiology research. As I learn about what my body can and cannot do, I’ve only become more interested in this subject with the possibility I can someday help others. I am aware that the discipline, toughness and patience I have gained from triathlon have given me the confidence and drive I need to succeed in the academic world as well.

Building on Meghan’s own momentum, we took on goal-setting, but in a different way than usual. Instead of focusing on performance goals, we worked on feeling and sensation goals. For example, instead of just paying attention to the feedback from Meghan’s watch about her pace and distance, she told herself, "I am going to stay open minded about myself during this entire run," or "I am going to focus on the fact that I am working my muscles," or “I’m going to finish strong even if I don’t feel strong." Everything had to be looked at from a new perspective. Swimming, biking and running became less about how fast she could go, but rather opportunities for Meghan get to know herself better.

I know that in triathlon you should focus on “controlling the controllables.” You cannot control how other people act during a swim start. You can't control if someone invades your bubble or kicks water into your mouth. But you can control your attitude, breathing and mentality. I’m going to remember Dr. Greene’s saying of “Courage over Confidence.” He wants me to remember that while my confidence is low I can choose to stay courageous, just like others who have to fight to do things they ordinarily could do without any problems. I am going to work on being my best self right now, rather than the best triathlete I can be. This means I need to use triathlon as a tool to better myself, without having my entire identity revolve around being an athlete. I will always carry this work ethic and adaptability to change through life no matter the goal. This sport keeps you on your toes in the best way possible.

Meghan is one inspiring and impressive person, who acknowledges that all of these challenges have her at times feeling very anxious and depressed. To Meghan’s credit, she has found a way to transfer that same persistence that made her an excellent triathlete to not letting what she can’t do get in the way of what she wants to do. She can thank triathlon for that!

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist, located in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For more information on Dr. Greene and his services for triathletes, go to greenepsych.com.

Meghan Smith is a health sciences major with minors in exercise physiology and nutrition at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Meghan can be reached at meghansmith196@gmail.com.

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