Once upon a time in a land called California, I was lucky enough to be invited to a group run with a well-known elite triathlete who had been on the top of many podiums and the covers of many magazines. “Leah” chatted with everyone before the run, graciously answering questions about her race experiences, training, and even diet. It was clear that we were all trying to pick her brain, hoping that we could absorb some of her wisdom and maybe even steal some of her workouts. I was surprised that Leah slid to the back end of the pack during the run and settled into a chill groove with us regular folks. She was so kind and open, I couldn’t help but ask her a question.
“Did you always know you were going to be this good?” I asked. Leah turned to glance at me as we trotted around the Stanford University campus and then got very quiet.
“No one’s ever asked me that before,” she said, a quizzical look on her face. I was terrified that I’d made a mistake and ready to scan the area for a ditch that I could throw myself into, but Leah finally answered me. “I don’t know that I am good now.”
What followed was a fifteen-minute-long conversation about life, loss, forgiving, joy, and regrets. Leah shared intimate details about her life that I would never betray, but that conversation told me more about what it takes to be a top athlete than anything I had ever seen written about her in a magazine. I never forgot that day or the lesson that athletes are people, first.
With this in mind, I decided to round up some of the most interesting triathletes I know and push beyond the mundane conversation about training. I asked everyone what they knew now that they wished they had known when they first got started in triathlon and what advice they would have given to themselves if they could go back in time. You may recognize some of the faces and some may be new to you, but all have some mind-blowing wisdom to share.
Whether elite, age group, or retired, all of the athletes featured here have had some pretty interesting lives. They’ve battled back from injury, fought against stigma, suffered through family trauma, overcome serious health conditions, and even ripped out the roots of their lives to start over. Like Leah, they have so much wisdom to share if we let them talk about something other than race recaps. We’re taught that athletes are made in training, but the truth is that what happens when we put on the tri suit depends more on who we are underneath it. Let’s meet a few of the folks that have figured this out already.Section divider
Professional Runner/Triathlete, Mama of Certified Cutie, Mental Health Advocate, Coach at Black Sheep Endurance Project
I wish I would not have put so much pressure on myself and had more of a “nothing to lose” mindset. I had sponsorships and it was my way of earning a living. I chased making money to validate to everyone that I was good enough to have a career in triathlon. It held me back on the performance side and I never allowed myself to reach my potential. Now, after having a child, I am running at the elite level and my performances are much better than they were in triathlon. I credit that to viewing everything as “extra” and having no expectations on any result in the future. Living in the now and just doing the best you can with nothing to lose is the way to go.
I encourage the new athletes coming into the sport to choose your own path. There are many ways to achieve the goals you want and each person’s path is unique. Throughout my career I faced many setbacks and pushback from other athletes. At the moment it may seem like everything is lost and there is no point in continuing to chase the dream. However, if you just keep showing up every single day, you’ll find that every obstacle (positive and negative) that you faced will lead you to exactly where you need to be. If you keep that mindset then you can get through anything.Section divider
Triathlete, Podcaster, Author, Public Relations Maven, Professor, New York Chick
In the beginning of my journey, I had a lot of anxiety and unresolved issues with my family that I never solved. My whole childhood I felt like I was never good enough, smart enough, talented enough, and pretty enough. I had a lot of toxic people in my life, and I felt insecure about my body. Instead of comparing myself to super athletes or to other “back of the packers,” I realized that the only one I must prove something to is myself. It doesn’t matter if you place, or you come in last place. What matters is that you did it and you did it for yourself.
When I first started, I was overwhelmed by “free advice.” I was told to get a carbon fiber bike, an expensive wetsuit, and all this expensive gear and in the end, I didn’t need it to complete a triathlon. I also didn’t need unsolicited advice about training, fuel, and hydration. I just needed my self-confidence that I could do it. The other thing I would say here is that life happens, and you can’t control what’s out of your control. In 2018, for example, I signed up for an Ironman and early in the year, my sister had an aneurysm and stroke and ended up passing away. I had to pull out of the Ironman and out of triathlon training while I came to terms with my sister’s death. I continued to swim, bike, and run in an unstructured way and when I was ready to train again, the sport was waiting for me.Section divider
Professional Triathlete, Truth Teller, Champion of Self-Acceptance, Martin’s Apple Chip Enthusiast
I wish that I’d accepted the inevitable ebb and flow in everything from fitness to performance to motivation. I tended to catastrophize every bad workout, rough week or subpar race. It felt as though my entire triathlon career and even my self-worth were always hanging in the balance. I’ve since learned that ups and downs are not only unavoidable, but also that the downs are an essential part of reaching new heights.
I wish I’d appreciated that it takes the help of a team to reach your best, even though triathlon is an “individual” sport. I used to have a misguided sense of pride in being a lone wolf, as if accepting the help of others would somehow cheapen my accomplishments. I thought I could be a self-taught expert at every aspect of the sport until I was humbled by a painful series of screw-ups. I had to get a lot more comfortable leaning on others, whether it’s coaches, training partners, sports docs or emotional supporters.
Also, I wish I knew that big training demands big eating! Underfueling training is playing with fire. Disordered eating delayed my athletic development and very nearly derailed my triathlon career. It took years to unwind these problematic behaviors and ingrain a healthier, performance-minded relationship with food.
I would tell people to carefully choose who to listen to and drown out the noise. There are so many perspectives on the optimal way to do everything from training to fueling to social media to business. It’s important to be open to new information, but listening to everything and everyone at once is utterly overwhelming and counterproductive. These days, I only really listen to about a dozen trusted people for advice on how to run my triathlon career.
Also, stop abusing training to (mis)manage stress and anxiety! Tough days don’t call for bigger workouts. Beating up on yourself in training isn’t self-medication. While exercise can help manage stress and anxiety, it should just be one coping mechanism among an arsenal of many.Section divider
Triathlete/Ultramarathoner, Health Coach, Bike Wreck Veteran, Loser of 200 pounds, Lover of Mountains
I wish I had spent more time uncovering my reasons for getting into triathlon. I would keep asking myself the “why” question. Why do you want to do this? Why are you getting out of bed early to train? Why do you want to do that race? Back then, I wouldn’t have had the skills to say, “I feel unworthy and I’m getting out of bed because I don’t want to be fat. It’s because I am scared of everything I eat.” I know now that I used triathlon because I hated my body. I used it for punishment and control. It wasn’t sustainable.
I almost feel like I am a cautionary tale, but it helped me see that I have more important reasons to be out here–because I love it. Now, I train because I want to still be moving when I am 90, healthy and independent. That’s why I tell my clients to “know their why” because this sport can be a tool that can lead to healing, but no sport can carry a “why” that’s too heavy. I help them see that if they are using the sport to compensate for something, it’s not going to lead to success.Section divider
Triathlete, Mental Health Warrior, Model, Devoted Cat Dad
For a long time I had no structure, no coach, I was doing whatever, whenever. I had this ridiculous idea that if I wanted to run fast, all my runs had to be fast. This ideology left me injured with ITBS which totally screwed the rest of my year including my World Championships in Lausanne Switzerland. I had to learn to seek professionals for advice; a coach, physiotherapist, dietitian, etc. It’s the best way to avoid guessing and getting injured and eating improperly. Ask those who are in your corner as many questions as possible. I know I probably drive my coach nuts, but that’s what they are there for.
I would go back and tell myself, “Know your why!” If you don’t have a “why”, there is no point to doing this. Some other things I would tell myself are that setbacks are guaranteed, not every session is going to be perfect, it’s OK to fail, and that you can’t rush performance gains. You’re not weak when you show vulnerability. Also, never let someone diminish your dreams. You’ve got to do what makes you happy.Section divider
Professional Triathlete/Runner, Barrier Breaker, Survivor of Horrific Crash, Role Model, Daughter of Best Tri Dad Ever
I wish I knew that it would not be smooth sailing, but the difficulties would make me a mentally and physically stronger athlete. I used to think my progression would be linear – the harder I worked, the more I’d accomplish. I did not take into account injuries, feeling burned out, or a bike crash that changed my life. But now I know that setbacks and challenges, the fact that I never gave up on my goals, and the help I received along the way, would make me the athlete I am today.
I would go back and tell myself not to compare myself to others. Focus on your own journey and appreciate each achievement, no matter how small it may seem. It’s easy to get caught up in social media and think that everyone is faster and more accomplished. When in reality, you don’t see the hard work, struggles, and sacrifice that people put in over a span of years to reach their goals.Section divider
Triathlete, Podcast Host, Coach, Filmmaker with Excellent Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Life Change Expert
I wish I’d known how important it was to do this for yourself and your own well-being. So many of us start out by wanting to prove something to others, but when you realize training shouldn’t crush your bones and spirit, you have a better grounding and confidence about racing. You also learn that the process is the goal. I have always chased times, but now I chase experience and the ability to recover/heal fast from a race so it doesn’t start another destructive cycle.
In the words of a favorite author, Charles Bukowskin, “Don’t try.” I’ve always thought of that to mean, don’t try to be someone you’re not. In triathlon, it can mean “don’t try too hard”. I think we misplace our energy by always wanting to grind, but the body performs much better when relaxed and we often move faster by allowing ourselves to let the body flow instead of forcing it.