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Transitioning from Participating Triathlete to Competitive Triathlete

If you are considering a jump to a more competitive involvement in triathlon, some changes may need to happen in your psyche and your life. Before you dive in, consider these factors.

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Doing a triathlon can be a truly fulfilling experience. Setting goals, gaining fitness, being outdoors, the camaraderie of swimming, biking, and running with others, the travel, and the simple act of completing a challenge they set for themselves can be a truly life-changing experience. For most triathletes, participation alone is reward enough.

But some triathletes, as they gain experience and show improvement in the individual disciplines and in their results on race day, find they get bitten by the competitive bug. These triathletes may consider making a shift from participating triathlete to competitive triathlete. You may be one of these. And deciding to make such a transition (pun intended) shouldn’t be made lightly. Such a move within our sport has some pretty significant implications that can have a big impact on the level of meaning, satisfaction, and joy you experience doing triathlons and on your life writ large.

You may feel some pressure to shift from a participation focus to a competitive focus from your tri friends and teammates who may be competitive by nature. Our sports culture, which places far too much emphasis on results, also exerts a tremendous gravitational pull toward becoming competitive. In both cases, you should resist these pressures and decide for yourself which road is best for your triathlon experience. Both are equally good!

If you are considering a jump to a more competitive involvement in triathlon, some changes may need to happen in your psyche and your life. Before you dive in, consider these factors.

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Investment of self

We humans often define ourselves along three parameters related to how much we invest in our life’s activities:

  • Self-identity (how we describe ourselves)
  • Self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves)
  • Goals (what we aspire to). Activities that are important to us get a heavy investment of self, typically family and career.

Participating triathletes aren’t highly invested in their triathlon life. Yes, they care about their training and enjoy it, but triathlon isn’t usually a central part of their identity. Participating triathletes don’t judge themselves based on their triathlon efforts, and they have moderate goals related to the sport, which frees up space to invest themselves in other areas of their life that they deem more important.

Competitive triathletes are an entirely different species of animal. They invest themselves deeply in their triathlon lives. When asked about themselves, competitive triathletes usually lead with, “I’m a triathlete!” They are so heavily invested in our sport that their self-esteem can become connected to their triathlon efforts in training and their performance in races. The healthy upside is that a great effort in training or races can cause competitive triathletes to feel really good about themselves. The sometimes unhealthy downside is that a tough swim, bike, run can cause them to feel bad about themselves. And if you ask them about some of their life goals, competitive triathletes will describe lofty triathlon goals that they are pursuing.

RELATED: The Danger of Letting Triathlon Become a Huge Part of Your Identity

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When you are a participating triathlete, our sport is likely pretty high on your list of life priorities, but it isn’t at the top. More pressing priorities might include family, work, school, and friends. Basically, triathlon is a part of an already full and busy life.

In contrast, triathlon holds a leading place among life’s priorities for competitive triathletes. I’m not saying that you ignore other important aspects of your life. Rather, when decisions have to be made about which aspect takes precedence, triathlon will usually win out.

For example, a participating triathlete may accept an invitation to a fun Saturday night party that they know will run late and just work out later on Sunday or choose not to train at all that day. Conversely, a competitive triathlete would choose to skip the party so as not to disrupt their Sunday training schedule.

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Inevitably, what you invest in and that which you prioritize is where you will commit your time. For participating triathletes, with our sport holding a lower level of investment of self and a lower priority in their lives, not surprisingly, they devote less time to their training and probably don’t train that many hours. Because their focus is on participation in triathlon, they stay active and gain and maintain a level of fitness that enables them to enjoy and finish their races.

Competitive triathletes are both highly invested in and prioritize our sport, so, no surprise here, they devote outsized amounts of time to their training and racing. For shorter-distance racing (sprint, Olympic), that can mean 10-15 hours a week; for longer-distance racing (70.3, Ironman) the time commitment can involve more than 20 hours a week. In other words, triathlon comes to dominate their daily and weekly calendars and their involvement becomes a lifestyle.

One thing to keep in mind about time is that it’s a zero-sum game with significant opportunity costs to that substantial time commitment. In other words, time spent in triathlon training and racing is time not spent with family (you may have heard of Ironman “widows”) and on work or school.

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A reality of triathlon is that it is a relatively expensive sport even for participating triathletes. There is just a lot of gear involved including just the basics of a bike, helmet, kit, running shoes, swimsuit, and goggles, use of a pool (even public pools charge for use), and entry fees and travel. Thanks to the internet, free training programs are ubiquitous and perfectly adequate to the needs of participating triathletes who want to train and compete safely. If participation alone is the goal, costs can be kept to a relative minimum by using entry-level gear and eschewing upgrades such as clipless pedals and aerobars. Races can be done locally to keep travel costs down.

The cost of triathlon reaches another order of magnitude for competitive triathletes. If the goal is to go as fast as possible and be competitive against other competitive triathletes, the basics will be woefully inadequate. A triathlon-specific superbike, aero helmet, clipless pedals, aero wheels, rear disc wheel, high-end wetsuit, hydration system,  super shoes, and swimming gear (buoy, paddles, snorkel, and kickboard) are a solid list of the “basics” for many competitive triathletes. Technology adds another layer of cost: a smartwatch, power meter, heart-rate monitor, indoor smart bike trainer, perhaps a treadmill and even smart swim goggles. And don’t forget the cost of services, too: bike fitting and fitness testing, coaching and subscriptions to the likes of Strava, TrainingPeaks, or other such platforms. There is also the cost of specialized nutrition and hydration and the rise in one’s monthly grocery to replenish all of those calories expended in training and races. Finally, there is the cost of traveling to races: entry fees, flights, lodging, ground transportation, and either using a bike transport service or buying a travel bike case. All in the name of shaving off margin gains from our swim, bike, run, and transition times and achieving your competitive goals.

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Specialized training

Participating triathletes train to meet the level of fitness that will enable them to finish their races and having fun doing so. Pretty much just getting in the pool, going for rides, and taking runs of any sort will usually be sufficient. Excessive discomfort from your training efforts is optional. And skipping workouts is no problem.

In contrast, for competitive triathletes trying to eke out every bit of speed in their races, much more specialized, focused, and intense training is required. FTP, VO2 Max, and anaerobic threshold are just a few of the physiological parameters that must be assessed to create a sophisticated and personalized training program that includes just the right balance of volume, intensity, and recovery in each event to maximize your fitness. 

With that training program in hand, competitive triathletes must demonstrate consistent commitment and effort. This determination must withstand the opposing forces of constant fatigue, frequent pain, periodic tedium, and regular desire to do something entirely unrelated to triathlon.

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One thing I so appreciate about participating triathletes is their wanton and healthy disregard for results. They are just happy to be out there, and they are doing triathlons for pure enjoyment and the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of the experience.

For competitive triathletes, that purity left the station long ago. The value they gain from triathlon comes from pushing their physical and mental limits, progressing in their fitness, beating their competitors, and achieving their competitive goals. This shift is where, admittedly, transitioning from participating triathlete to competitive triathlete can turn unhealthy. This shift can result in a loss of that pure joy and the investment of self can turn troubling where tough training days, plateaus in fitness, and disappointing race results can turn triathlon into a cross to bear rather than “the wind beneath my wings.”

The bottom line

There is no ideal path for doing triathlon; it’s a personal decision. Regardless of whether you are a participating triathlete, a competitive triathlete, or are considering make a transition, you want your involvement in triathlon to be healthy, life affirming, and just plain fun.

Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of performance. He has been a consultant for the United States and Japanese Ski Teams, the United States Tennis Association, and USA Triathlon, and has worked with professional and world-class athletes in tennis, skiing, cycling, triathlon, track and field, swimming, football, golf, baseball, fencing, and many other sports. He is the author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Triathlon Goals.