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Mental Training 101: Can Tri Training Help with Depression?

In the second edition of our new monthly mental training series, sports psychologist Jeff Troesch looks at the role triathlon can play in fighting depression.

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From the very outset here, I want to be clear that for someone who is dealing with a clinical syndrome or disorder, exercise alone is unlikely to be fully effective as a treatment. However, an extensive number of research studies have shown that exercise can have the potential to have a very positive effect on depressive symptoms, especially as it relates to the transient and cyclical symptoms of the condition. It is outside of my area of expertise to speak to the multiple physiological changes inherent in tri training and racing that might affect depressive symptoms, but from a psychological perspective, people struck with depressive symptoms can have challenges with things such as motivation, loss of energy, and feelings of meaninglessness. Tri training and racing certainly has the potential to create an increased level of motivation for pursuing a goal, and for many people a sense of purpose is evoked in those who discipline themselves in their training. What I often find as well is that people in “down moods” will assume that exercise will create less energy for them. Many who make the effort to engage in a training process are surprised to find that, in general, proper training, coupled with appropriate nutrition and recovery, is actually additive to their overall energy level. My professional experience has shown me that the vast majority of triathletes experience a multitude of psychological benefits that can flow out of taking on a challenge and staying resilient in pursuit of a worthy goal.  

However, one of the challenges that I see some triathletes face is that their initially healthy reasons for taking on training and racing become unhealthy. They find themselves becoming increasingly anxious about training sessions and/or exceedingly critical of themselves because of what they deem as “poor” sessions or races. This can lead to some athletes unhealthily losing perspective of where tri training and racing fits into their lives and—in extreme cases—can have the potential to exacerbate depressive tendencies. This is why it is so valuable and beneficial to make sure that your “why” for training and racing is healthy and clear, that how you interpret your sessions and races is productive and beneficial, and that you strive always to separate who you are as a person from how you happen to train or compete as an athlete. If that mindset is clear and deliberate on a daily basis, then for many people it could have a profoundly positive effect on depressive tendencies. 

Jeff Troesch is a sports psychologist with more than 30 years’ experience in the field. He has worked with professional and amateur athletes from a wide range of sports, including golf, tennis, surfing, and triathlon. He has helped lead pro triathletes to world championship and regional championship titles. He was a guest on our Fitter & Faster podcast, which you can listen to here.