I have been a triathlete for over a decade.
Putting that in writing is actually quite weird to see. In so many ways, I still feel like I am a beginner. I am still trying to figure out how to optimise my performance. I am still trying to work out what I need to do to get myself to the finish line as fast as possible. I am on the precipice of a sub 2-hour Olympic Distance triathlon and my PB over the half distance is 4:06, but I know there is still so much I can learn and do to improve.
Looking back at the last ten years, the biggest take away or benefit I have gotten from triathlon (apart from having more lycra in my wardrobe than a super hero does) is the structure it has given my life. Saturday is a long ride. Swim squad is on a Monday and Wednesday. Friday is my easier day and Wednesday and Thursday are usually pretty full on. I have learned to organise my life around my training to make sure I fit everything in.
Including the athletes I coached, I had a fairly small tight-knit community within the sport that made up my social circle.
We were all fiends for triathlon; we ate up all that the sport had to offer. We would watch classic races and dissect the performances. We would have arguments about who the best of all time was and loved taking sides in the great debates like Macca vs. Crowie.
Over two years ago I managed to achieve what many people would dream about. I turned my passion for triathlon into a career. Triathlon became not only the sport I love, but also my job.
But now that my job is triathlon and I deal with triathletes of all walks of life on a daily basis, I realise that we were an aberration. You see, triathlon has a problem. A problem that I am becoming more and more aware of in recent weeks.
Triathletes don’t stay triathletes for very long.
I am a big believer that to consider yourself a triathlete you need to swim, bike and run. You don’t need to do an Ironman or qualify for 70.3 Worlds or ride a $10k bike. It is more about living that swim, bike, run lifestyle.
So how to put this delicately… I think the problem with triathlon is that we all take ourselves a little too seriously. I am happy to put my hand on my heart and say that I absolutely take my triathlon incredibly seriously. I train hard and expect a lot out of myself. But I know that at some point over the last decade I got to a point when I realised, I was taking it too seriously and took measures to counterbalance my life.
I am going to paint a ‘pathway’ through the sport and be honest, does this sound familiar? A person hears about triathlon. Maybe through a friend, or they saw a story about something to do with it. They do their race and enjoy it. They train a bit harder and do another race. They make a big improvement. They start thinking to themselves, ‘maybe I’m not too bad at this triathlon thing.’ They start to look into the pros. They use the professional performances as a yardstick to their performance and at the same time start paying attention to age group placings. They decide that they should take this a bit more seriously and get a coach and make even more improvements. The thought ‘maybe I could go pro’ enters their head. They train even harder and more determined than ever. Their coach starts telling them to back it off a bit, to focus on recovery. They keep pushing. They plateau or get injured and can never quite close the gap to the professionals. They realise that they will not go pro and give up on the sport realising that their obsession with triathlon has cost them more than a small fortune.
Here is a second pathway. A person wants to do an Ironman. They have heard the stories, seen the tattoos, they want to challenge themselves. They train for it and do their Ironman. It is one of the hardest things they ever do. They hear the words “You are an Ironman” as they finish the race. They tick it off their bucket list and for the rest of their lives are able to dismissively state ‘Yeah I have done an Ironman’ whenever triathlon is mentioned.
I know, I know. I am making sweeping generalisations here but I think that most of us will either know someone or be someone who has gone through something similar to this.
I played team sport for most of my life. Even when I was well over 100kgs (I think that is about 57,000 pounds?) I could still rock up once a week for a game and have a few beers after the game. I was an athlete. I played weekly soccer with my mates. I watched games with them, had social gatherings with them and it didn't really impact the rest of my life too much. I had a moderate relationship with sport.
That is a story that many people see as impossible in triathlon.
We all hear that triathletes are a certain type of person. They are type A personalities that are laser-focused on their goal. But that is the problem that I think triathlon has. We need more moderation. Now I know I am so guilty of this but who says you need to race X number of 70.3s a year? Why do you need to do an Ironman every year? What is wrong with taking a few years to just focus on some local short course events?
I have seen a real focus on making triathlon more ‘television-friendly’ but is that really what the issue is? I mean, watching an Ironman can be as exciting as watching Jan Frodeno on his indoor trainer (yes I am judging you!) but maybe the problem we are having with really making triathlon a long-term popular sport is the complete lack of moderation. We are all so certain of our own athletic prowess that we get caught up in what we are doing and lose sight of why we were all drawn to the sport. I bet it wasn’t really for a PB or a finisher medal. It was probably more for the challenge or the sense of self-achievement.
I am writing this fully aware of how hard I have been chasing a certain result for years. I know that when I was within a minute of that time last year I contemplated giving the sport up. I mean 48 seconds is close enough right? But then I realised that while I love chasing PB’s and getting as fast as I can, I love the structure it gives my life. I love that it helps keep me in shape and how my training actually helps me to do my job better too.
What will fix this issue? I don't have a definite idea. But I know that this obsession with chasing Ironman as the pinnacle of our sport is not the answer. Neither is trying to maintain 20+ hours of training a week or pushing ourselves to the point where injury is ‘just something you need to deal with.’ Maybe if we focus more on moderation in our training, racing and personal and professional life there will be less burnout? Maybe by focusing less on what is sexy, like how hard our training was, and focusing more on what is important like sleeping 8 hours a night? I am still waiting for the sleeping version of Strava where we give each other kudos for sleeping hard!
Maybe by keeping more people in the sport will help to make more people want to watch it? I am sure as many people who are reading this article have ideas about how you could help ‘fix’ triathlon. But I think lots of people would have to admit that it needs to start with moderation. The candle that burns brightest doesn’t last and neither do the athletes.
But what I really hope that you get out of reading this article is the realisation is that what makes triathlon great isn’t the top professionals, or the plastic age group trophies we chase -- or even the excuse to wear training clothes so much. What makes it great is the people who make up the community. I am constantly blown away by the stories I see come up from our MX members and despite not knowing what will fix triathlon I do know that the more of us that are triathletes, the better off we will all be as triathletes.
Tim Ford is the CEO of MX Endurance and a member of our team of coaches. He has gone from being a complete novice weighing well over 120kg to a top athlete with a 4:06 PB for a 70.3. Through his time in the sport he has learned skills which help him to assist athletes of all levels and abilities.