If you are a first time reader, I want to give you the cheat notes version of my story in triathlon. I was overweight, I did a triathlon. It took me a VERY long time. I kept doing triathlons, I lost weight and now I go much faster.
If you have read anything that I have written before you are probably aware of my story. So you won’t be amazed to hear that the most common reason people reach out to me isn’t how to make bike photos look good. It is: “How do I improve as much as you did?”
I have been asked this question probably hundreds of times and over time I think my answer has changed a lot.
Spoiler alert (so all of you who thought “This is the quick way for me to improve,” I’m sorry): there is no quick fix. But what I have learned through lots of trial and error is that the secret, if that’s what you want to call it, is actually quite simple.
Now before I lay it all out for you, I am writing this with full knowledge that there are outliers. Those beautiful freaks who just get good quickly. Maybe it is their background in another sport, maybe it is their genes or maybe just god-given talents. But for the vast majority of us, that’s not the case.
It is going to take time. I have spent the last 5 years working closely with a range of age group athletes and I can hand on heart tell you that the ones who have improved the most are the ones who are still putting in the work day after day.
Last year I wrote an article about the problem that triathlon as a sport has is that so many triathletes burn out and don’t stay triathletes for long. I get it. Training to become the best athlete you can be takes time. Lots of time because the best way to get better is to consistently train.
But here is where I mix things up a bit this time. I don’t actually think that consistency is the secret to success. Consistency is the objective, black and white, what you need to do thing to improve.
The reality though is that it ain’t a secret.
If you are reading this and you have just had a light bulb moment going ‘wow I didn’t realise!’ - what have you been doing!!! But I think that more likely people are going ‘yeah Tim, I know! But I came here for the secret.’ So this is where I think I have had my own lightbulb moment. The secret to improving as an athlete isn’t being consistent; it’s having fun.
Even as I typed that I can sense my readers’ eyes rolling. Yeah yeah, it’s a massive cliche and no I don’t mean I want you circled round the fire holding hands while you do your trainer session singing Kumbaya. I am talking about making your triathlon lifestyle fun so that it is easy to be consistent.
In the last few months I have seen a number of athletes announce that they are ‘done with the sport’ and others saying that they need a break. While I think a break is something that all endurance athletes need to take, there should never be the need to take a break that is more than a few weeks.
So why does this happen?
Because people have lost the fun. Be it their own goals to win their age group, qualify for Kona, smash a PB -- eventually, if an athlete doesn’t get there it stops being fun. I’ve had athletes tell me of the guilt they feel because of the time they spend training because of their family, social life, work or the pressure that their training puts on them. That doesn’t sound like much fun either.
Whatever it is, at some point they stop having fun and decide to take a break. They realise how much easier things are. Maybe they decide to come back but aren’t at the same level they thought they were and try to push what they used to do. It doesn’t work, and they’re gone forever.
Now this isn’t meant to be me judging anyone. Everyone has their own priorities. Swimming, biking and running doesn’t need to be on the top of everyone’s list of things they need to do.
It should be on their list because they want to do it. When I talk about fun, what I mean is that we need to find ways to encourage people who love the sport to stay in the sport. Triathlon is our hobby and we do hobbies to add to our life, not make it harder.
“So Tim, how do I make it fun?”
I mean I could easily say just take the pressure off yourself, do it for the enjoyment or the social element. For some of you reading that will be enough. But for lots of you, you will still want to improve, be your best and get to Kona etc. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Instead, I will say, patience. Patience is not something many athletes have but it will ultimately mean you have more fun and keep going. Give yourself longer to reach your goals. Do less each week for longer to maintain balance and prevent burnout. Stop overdoing it every session and understand that you need to recover to improve.
Focus on what the sport can give you. If you train properly, you will be fitter, you will probably maintain a healthier weight and you will have more confidence. You will have more balance which means you are able to perform better at work, be more present with your family and enjoy the time you spend with your friends.
Be realistic with what you can achieve. This doesn’t mean you can’t get better, but it means if you are struggling to fit in training because of your personal life, maybe don’t aim for an Ironman. If you only have a limited amount of time, focus on some shorter races. Or mix up all distances so that you can face most distances at different times depending on your lifestyle.
Another big one that I will strongly recommend is that you should follow the professional racing and no I don’t just mean Ironman. I cannot tell you how much fun I have watching the World Triathlon or Super League events. Doing a 2-hour trainer ride while watching the London Olympics made the session feel like it was 10 minutes. Following the sport means that even if you can’t train 20 hours a week, you can still have fun with it and this will ultimately mean you are still part of it.
I think at some point I started rambling because this is about twice as long as I meant it to be. But my point is, no matter what you are doing in triathlon, always remember to maintain the fun. I promise you if you keep the enjoyment up, you will be much less likely to burn out. You will keep training and ultimately you will get better.
It worked for me, so why wouldn’t it work for you?
Have fun ;-)
Tim Ford is the GM 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.