Culture

Futureproofing Triathlon: The Science of Long-Term Health and Performance

A leading sport scientist asked the question: Is it possible to futureproof endurance sports to create happier, healthier, lifelong triathletes? Here's what he found.

In engineering, the concept of futureproofing means to design something so that it can still be used for the long haul, even when technology changes. By anticipating the future, engineers can develop methods for minimizing the shocks and stresses of future events, be it a building that will one day need to expand or a computer that will need to be compatible with changes in network operations. Future-proofing something, at its core, means to take steps now to avoid becoming dysfunctional later.

It’s a concept that has swirled around in the mind of Dr. Michael Kennedy, a sport scientist and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, for years. Though his specialty is athletic performance, not engineering, he’s long sought out ways to apply the concept of futureproofing to endurance sport. His big question: Are the methods we’re using in triathlon now helping athletes avoid consequences in the future? Is it possible to futureproof endurance sports to create happier, healthier, lifelong triathletes?

The result of his investigation, published in the January 2020 journal BMC Sports Science, Medicine, and Rehabilitation, suggests several themes coaches, race directors, physicians, and athletes can apply to triathlon today to ensure long-term health and performance. Here Kennedy discusses his research.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Triathlete: Your recent research discusses the idea of “futureproofing” triathlon. What does that mean?

Dr. Michael Kennedy: This concept of futureproofing originally stemmed from a conversation with the Science and Triathlon 2017 organization committee. We had a collection of coaches, event planners, triathlon administrators, and me, as a sport scientist and academic, and we were looking for a way to acknowledge the present state of triathlon performance and triathlete health but with an eye to the future. So we took this concept of futureproofing, or designing something so it’s still useful in the future, and said let’s go for it, let’s be bold and use this idea to make some bold recommendations about how the sport of triathlon could move forward. 

As a scientist, I knew we could not just come up with these as concepts or recommendations on my own, so I gathered the best mind I could think of that comprised scientists, physicians, coaches, administrators, athletes,  and other practitioners who are involved in the delivery of triathlon as a sport. It was the roundtables at the conference where we had open and honest discussions about the issues facing triathlon.

Why is this an important concept for our sport?

Amateur triathletes and elite triathletes all share the same passion for trying to better understand their destiny, are open to innovation, and enjoy challenging themselves, so futureproofing is well suited as a concept. Futureproofing presents a new approach to improving the performance of triathletes and the welfare of triathletes. This is an opportunity for change in triathlon. One of the things that was highlighted in these roundtable discussions was how “doing things because that is the way it’s been done” is not a path that will create change. With a futureproofing approach, we have an opportunity for anyone in the sport to examine what they are doing, and ask how we could unshackle some of those assumptions and cultural aspects of the sport that maybe are not super healthy or limits growth of the sport or inclusiveness of the sport. And this futureproof document provides, at the minimum, some contemplative thought to anyone who reads it. 

When it comes to futureproofing, what are some things we’re already doing right?

I think there is an intrinsic spirit of innovation and looking forward that triathlon has that other sports don’t. As a sport scientist who has worked with probably 25 different sports in my career, I can think of few sports where the drive to innovate is as strong. This means that change is easier for triathlon than other sports because participants, coaches, administrators all get that change can be positive and that this change can lead to better sport in the future.

Also, coaches and athletes in triathlon are measurement-driven—to monitor training status, training load (internal and external) and generally tracking many metrics associated with training progress. This is positive in the sense that triathletes in general know plenty about their training and performance and lead many sports in harnessing technology to plan, adjust training and improve performance.

What are some of the major areas where we are lacking?

As much as triathletes measure things well, there isn’t much understanding of what to do with this. As one coach said: “What do you do with all that information? It makes your head spin.” Data keeps triathletes feeling confident in their performance gains, but distracts from a more holistic approach of training just to train for enjoyment. Days off mean something. Triathletes are open to using technology, but might be fallible in just believing the technology. They should dig a little deeper to understand their overall fatigue and health status.

Tying in with that, triathletes and coaches of triathletes still overcompensate with too much. If you ask the average coach if they’d rather have an athlete fit and tired, or less fit but feeling well-rested and ready to race, the coaches will invariably choose fit and tired. But that flies in the face of reams of research, which shows fatigued athletes rarely perform optimally. So I think there is a culture of trying to out-train others and always feel tired. But that is not healthy, and certainly affects the welfare of participants both new to the sport right up to elite triathletes. This is especially true for the developmental system in most countries (well North America for sure) falls into the same trap as other endurance sports—too much, too soon for young athletes who are just starting to mature. Significant inroads need to be made here.

In the long term, what will happen if we don’t address these issues?

That is a big question! Triathlon, as a sport, will go on—I don’t think the issues are insurmountable or threatening to the viability of the sport. Triathlon will continue to exist, races will be run and won, and triathletes will still show up to clubs and academies and training groups. But I think there is clearly an opportunity to improve the welfare, the health, and the associated performances of the sport. If we reflect on the COVID experience, for example, it’s pretty clear that less racing makes triathletes happier and healthier. When they do race, it leads to really exceptional experiences. So I would use that as a good pilot that many of the themes in the futureproof concept are valid, and could assist in some formative change in the sport. 

What are some recommended futureproofing changes for the sport going forward?

Don’t tie coaches’ salaries and performance reviews at any level to performance of athletes they coach. There is a long list of other ways you could define coaching performance, especially for junior clubs and academies. Things like—did the youth athletes feel healthy, uninjured, happy, collegial, and also improve their skills and knowledge about the sport? If you do this the coaches will be unshackled from worrying about who might win, who might the star athlete be, how can I squeeze as much out of them as I can?

In that same vein, don’t let under-informed coaches ever coach the most vulnerable. Steve Norris, a fellow sport scientist, has always contended that the best trained coaches should always coach those most vulnerable, as their expertise can build a most impressive foundation of sound training habits and skills. I would agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. Let’s free up some of those elite coaches to get back to the grassroots, or work with some amateur weekend warriors.

For athletes, it’s simple: Race less. There are so many markers of endurance performance you can use that can keep the competitive fires burning. Focus on other aspects of development like running or swimming technique, basic bike mechanic skills, try other ways to do a triathlon—mountain bike instead of road. Mix it up and expand the capabilities of triathletes. It’s also important for athletes to have a real post season—I nearly fall out of my chair when I check Instagram and see athletes still cycling lots in the immediate weeks after their “A” race of the season. Taking a 4 to 6 week break from specific training will do a world of good, and leads to restoration of health and balance. 

For everyone—coaches, athletes, medical practitioners—it’s important to keep education at the forefront. There’s a bridge from sport science to sport knowledge, and it’s important to invest in hiring knowledge translation experts to ensure that at a global and local level, good information is interpreted correctly. We are trying to do our part with the WTS education forums we have been hosting over the past 6 months.

FOR MORE: 

Read the full journal article: Futureproofing Triathlon: Expert Suggestions to Improve Health and Performance in Triathletes
Listen to expert interviews at
World Triathlon Series: Science and Triathlon Podcast