How Can We Make Tri Better for Athletes with Autism or ADHD?

A more inclusive sport for neurodiverse athletes starts with coaches, trainers, and race directors.

Photo: Getty Images

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Have you ever been unable to run because the drawstring on your shorts was in the wrong location? Have you ever been ashamed to ask your coach all of your questions for fear of seeming awkward or needy? Have you ever carried all of your nutrition at a race because you can’t eat anything but familiar foods? Have you ever thought about quitting racing altogether because you find certain parts of the experience intolerable? You may have experienced one or more of these difficult situations—we all have our ups and downs. However, for some neurodiverse (ND) athletes, these concerns (as well as many others) occupy an enormous amount of space in our minds as we navigate the challenges of training and racing in a world that wasn’t designed for us.

RELATED: What’s It Like to Be a Triathlete with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD?

Training in “Opposite World” 

In Part I of this series on neurodiverse (ND) athletes who have autism (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), we learned that triathlon can be a great place for a unique mind to thrive. We also learned that ND athletes have certain natural traits and characteristics that might make us especially great at endurance sports, but can also present major challenges. While every ND athlete is unique, some themes seem to reemerge every time you get a group of us together to chat about training and racing.

One of the points that many of us can agree on is that what works for most neurotypical (NT) athletes does not work for us. Mette Harrison, an ASD All-American triathlete and writer from Utah who has been training and racing for almost 20 years, remembers devouring information about triathlon as a beginner but becoming frustrated when very little of it was useful: “I read every single article, but I learned that I am so different that their advice is the opposite of what is useful to me.” Common recommendations for everything from nutrition to gear, and from race-day strategy to preferred methods of communication are likely to fail, sometimes causing us to become discouraged—or worse, to give up entirely.

Many of us have stayed silent about the challenges to our detriment, but no more. The athletes featured here are dedicated to their sport and to raising awareness about what it means to be neurodiverse. Each of them is convinced that sharing their experiences will help other ND athletes gain the confidence to trust their instincts. Gencho Nomad, an ASD endurance athlete and audio engineer from Bulgaria believes that raising awareness helps to close the gaps in knowledge that can affect performance. As he says: “You don’t want to run a machine with inaccurate info.”

The athletes hope that others in the triathlon community, like coaches and race directors, might gain a better understanding of who we are so that we can all have the successful experience we work so hard for.

Training Our Own Way

Learning how to train can be perplexing for any new triathlete. There is much to know and many sources willing to share best practices—but they are likely not our best practices. For example, NT athletes can enjoy the sense of camaraderie and feel motivated when training in a group, but many ND folks prefer to train alone. Lucie Hanes, an ASD/ADHD endurance athlete, journalist, and consultant from Colorado, doesn’t like the idea of following someone else’s pace, dislikes feeling forced to be chatty, and doesn’t like being too close to people: “I hate it all, but mainly because of not having control.”

Nomad also prefers to train alone. He feels overstimulated and anxious with other people, even noticing that his heart rate is markedly elevated when training in a group setting. But, while he will only train outside, believing that being in nature is important for his mental health, Harrison will only train indoors where she has ultimate control over her environment.

Some ND athletes expressed a need for reminders to eat or drink during training, since many find it difficult to navigate nutrition and hydration. Nomad wishes that his watch had two separate alarms to let him know when it’s time to eat or drink, otherwise he forgets. Dr. Thomas D. Puleo, an ADHD specialist who also has ADHD, says that this makes a lot of sense. “ADHD people may not pay attention to hunger and fullness in general, let alone when they are focused on getting through a workout.” He admits to setting alarms on his phone or resorting to writing down a time to eat on his arm with a Sharpie.

In direct opposition to sports science and general common sense, many ND athletes also expressed a need to train consistently, even through post-race recovery. As discussed in Part I of this series, ND athletes may use training to meet a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional needs, making it difficult to stop even when it’s advisable to do so. This puts them in the tricky spot of balancing their mental health along with an increased risk for overuse injuries.

Aiofe O’Connor, an ASD/ADHD triathlete and illustrator, found herself in a deep depression and completely unable to work after taking time off after a half-ironman in 2017. She learned that she can avoid this by continuing to train at a lower level of intensity in the post-race phase, but is aware that it takes her much longer to recover. “I’ll go out and hike. I’ll spin easy on the bike trainer. I race less now because I can’t bounce back quickly, but it’s my way of striking a balance. I know it’s not the right thing to do, but it’s what I have to do.”

Coaching a Neurodiverse Athlete

Though ND athletes may be the most in need of guidelines to keep them from overtraining and to filter out the advice that doesn’t serve them, it can be difficult for ND athletes to find a coach who understands their needs. Harrison believes that the typical coach is focused on the wrong goal. “The coach’s focus is on getting me to have faster times. Sometimes it’s been hard for me to explain to the coach that I don’t think I am doing this for the reasons you think I am doing this.” She needs triathlon to regulate her emotions and to avoid dealing with some personal pain, but speed has nothing to do with it.

Geoff C., an endurance athlete and computer programmer from California, has learned that he needs to work with a coach willing to think outside the box. He says that previous coaches often padded mileage goals since NT athletes will sometimes not meet them. However, many ND athletes view a numerical goal as law, making it difficult to not hit a mileage goal once it is set. Geoff found himself overdoing it almost every week until he had an open conversation with his coach. “He recognized that he should have paid attention to my emotional status when crafting plans. He was the only one to recognize that there was such a thing.”

ND athletes may feel a sense of awkwardness around how much or how often they need to communicate with their coach, sometimes to their detriment. Hannah Read, a triathlete with ADHD, struggles with the feeling that she is over-communicating. “I worry I ask too many questions, send too many texts, and interrupt during group conversations. As a result, I consciously censor myself.” Yet Dr. Puleo says that frequent check-ins are necessary. “A coach of a neurodiverse athlete should be calling frequently and checking in. If that’s not what happens–wow, what a travesty. It can be so easy to get hurt in more ways than one, physically and mentally.” He believes that a good coach is essential to navigating the complexities of triathlon training for anyone who struggles with executive function, which studies show is a feature of ADHD. All of the little details and decisions about training and organization can become overwhelming, potentially pulling the athlete’s focus far away from the task at hand.

Hanes seems to have found a coach eager to focus on her individual struggles, not the typical struggles. “When I was on my own I made the mistakes of doing too much, too fast, too long, too soon. I had to reach out and say ‘Hey I need some advice and limits. I don’t think I can do this by myself.’ It’s what made the difference and put me on the right path.” Her coach is also a nutritionist and therefore can also hold her accountable for her nutrition goals since she also struggles with under-fueling. It takes a lot of bravery to recognize that it may be better to outsource decision-making to another person, and a special kind of coach to take on the responsibility. “She knows what’s best for me. I do not know what’s best for me. Even if I do, I do not always choose that.”

Race Day Strategies 

Racing can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but ND athletes have some particular challenges.

Many concerns can be described as “logistical,” though each of us seems to find a way around them. Hanes dislikes when the race distance isn’t precise. She admits to adding a few meters of running when the course is not accurate, even after crossing the finish line. She’s learned to live with another aspect of racing that can be difficult for her–the start time. “Having to start at a specific time is weird for me. I can set the time, but if someone else tells me what time I have to start it really throws me off.”

O’Connor finds the swim start to be very overstimulating, feeling “sparks of electricity from everyone’s energy” while waiting on a beach that can affect her breathing. Once she starts swimming, she feels better, but tries to position herself as far out of the way of other athletes before getting in the water. She also used to struggle in transitions, becoming distracted easily and forgetting important steps. Practicing transitions repeatedly and always putting her gear in the same spot has helped her develop muscle memory for the task, freeing her mind to focus on what’s coming next.

Harrison finds it difficult to verbalize her needs while in a racing mindset. She practices asking for things at an aid station but admits that she doesn’t have the energy to interact verbally once the race is over. “I know what’s required of me, but I can’t do it. I’m tired. I want quiet.” Her strategy is to meet up with her family and maneuver out of the crowd as quickly as possible.

Of course, some ND endurance athletes have opted to skip racing altogether. They continue to train, either planning self-supported race-like events or just enjoying swimming, biking, and running. Nomad no longer races, but he will find an event that interests him and do the same course at a time that suits him. He then checks his time against the actual race results to gauge his placement. It’s not that he can’t manage the sensory overload, it’s that he doesn’t want to experience traditional, public competition. “I tried, but I don’t like races,” he said. “I want to achieve things and do something incredible, but I want to be alone when I am doing it.”

Geoff doesn’t race anymore either, and says he often used it just as an excuse to get out of social engagements despite not enjoying the experience. “Racing served a function. It sometimes meant that I had to forsake my entire social life and if you’re on the spectrum, that’s fine because going out with people is a pain in the ass, it’s grueling. With a race, I can say I have to train in the morning.” Though he’s not interested in comparing himself to other athletes, he does set up solo adventures that have a “big event” feeling with none of the crowds.

The Fourth Discipline for Neurodiverse Athletes: Managing Sensory Input

Neurodiverse people typically have very significant sensory issues that can affect almost every aspect of our lives. We often find ourselves gravitating toward products, foods, clothing, and situations that will diminish the amount of uncomfortable sensory input that we experience. As triathletes, it’s critical that we find ways to make ourselves comfortable so that we can focus on performance. Every ND athlete will likely have different preferences, but we usually feel quite strongly about them. Some of us have strong food aversions and texture issues, making it difficult to rely on what is offered at aid stations.

Hanes manages this issue by carrying all her own nutrition, but Harrison dislikes this approach. At her last race, she had a choice between crusty fig cookies and a goopy energy gel, which she described as “completely inedible.” Though she admits to being picky, she feels like she’s not asking for much. “I want to sit down and talk to [the race organizers] and ask them if they think about ND people.”

All of the athletes expressed very strong sentiments about clothing, often stating that they have been so distracted by some uncomfortable feature that they were forced to stop their workout. Nomad rips all of the tags out of his clothing. “I think sports clothing has the most disturbing tags, they are made of razor blades.” He also struggled with getting his running shoes tied just right until he found that elastic laces allow for the perfect snug fit with a bit of give. Geoff searches high and low for shorts that have the drawstring on the outside of the waistband, not the inside. He also needs the liner of the shorts to be made of a specific material or the day is ruined. As soon as he finds the perfect combination, he buys multiple pairs and hopes they don’t get discontinued. Every woman interviewed said that she would rather not train at all than get out there with a sports bra that pinched, chafed, or pulled, and almost every athlete mentioned wrestling with swim goggles in one way or another. O’Connor says she wishes that she could be a consultant at a sports clothing company, since none of them seem to understand how to make a comfortable waistband. “I want flat, wide, smooth, soft. It can’t be that hard.”

Another hot topic among the athletes was finding the perfect way to carry water. There was no consensus among the group, but each athlete said that they could not train without their preferred system. One prefers a vest, but with bottles in the chest pockets on the front. Another likes a water bottle behind the saddle, but never in between the aerobars because she finds it distracting. O’Connor said she loves handheld bottles since any feeling of weight from a pack is intolerable. Yet, Stefanie, an ASD endurance athlete feels the complete opposite. “I prefer to run with my vest regardless of the distance. Wearing it feels like a constant hug, which makes me feel more secure.”

Unique Triathletes, Same Passion

We may approach things differently as neurodiverse athletes, but we hope to have the same positive experience as anyone else. The sport speaks to us in the same way that it speaks to you and we believe that sharing our stories brings us closer together. If you are a coach, race director, or clothing designer, we hope that you’ll think of us the next time you work with a new client or make a critical decision. We’ll be happy to tell you where to put the drawstring!

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