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Use the COVID-19 Crisis to Become a Better Triathlete

How can you use the COVID-19 crisis to become a better triathlete (and person)?

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Let me begin with a question: What does the COVID-19 crisis have in common with triathlon? At first blush, you would probably say, “Absolutely nothing!” I mean, really, the current pandemic has created crises of health and financial markets that are disrupting the lives of almost everyone on our planet. People the world over are getting sick and dying, global economies are facing a recession, and the financial futures of many people are at risk.

Now, compare the novel coronavirus to triathlon. It’s just, well, triathlon. A significant part of the world couldn’t care less about it. Though triathlon has its share of injuries, deaths are rare. And, yes, triathlon can be expensive, but it probably hasn’t caused anyone financial ruin (I may be wrong about that).

So, how can I say that you can use the COVID-19 crisis to become a better triathlete (and person)? Let me explain.

Triathlon does have its challenges. It tests your motivation, confidence, focus, and emotions. Other challenges include being unfamiliar (a new venue), unpredictable (s&%# happens in triathlon), uncertain (no guarantees), ambiguous (no clear path to success), uncomfortable (cold weather, headwind on the bike, the last part of any distance), and uncontrollable (weather). Triathlon elicits a wide range of unpleasant emotions including disappointment, frustration, fear, and anger. You add up all of these challenges and you get one very stressful activity.

Now, let’s swap out “triathlon” with “COVID-19” in the above paragraph and it all fits in nicely with one exception: Whatever triathletes experience, the current pandemic is many multiples more severe and challenging. But, at the heart of both is adversity and therein lies an incredible opportunity for all of us to use the current crisis to become mentally stronger and more resilient as triathletes.

Another thing that these two experiences have in common is that the challenges they present are mostly the same for everyone. I’ve never been in a triathlon in which the water temperature is 10 degrees colder for me, it’s only raining on me, or the distance is longer for me. The same holds true for COVID-19 (though there are some differences based on age, health, and other factors).

Given that the conditions of triathlon and the COVID-19 crisis are similar for most everyone, it’s not the objective reality of the experiences that matters. Instead, what matters is how we interpret and respond to the challenges. And it is your attitude toward and response to the pandemic that can either make or break your experience of it and any benefits that may accrue for you as a triathlete. Gosh, if you can respond positively to this current situation, something as relatively minor as a triathlon should be a walk in the park for us.

So, what lessons can you learn from the COVID-19 crisis that will serve you well when we start racing again?

See the COVID-19 Crisis As a Challenge

One of the most difficult aspects of the current crisis is that, because it is truly a danger to us both in terms of our health and our wealth, it triggers our primitive survival instinct and its related fight-or-flight reaction. In other words, we go into threat mode in which the aforementioned primordial instincts cause us to protect ourselves. The problem is that what worked on the Serengeti 250,000 years ago won’t be effective in this modern-day crisis. We can’t fight the “beast” because it’s not tangible. And we can’t flee from it either because there is nowhere to hide (except perhaps in our own homes and we can’t stay there indefinitely).

This real threat to our survival hopefully motivates you to take steps to mitigate the risks to your life; for example, self-quarantining, washing your hands, or maintaining social distancing. At the same time, your survival instinct can also prevent you from gaining the benefits that the coronavirus is offering.

So, in addition to responding appropriately to the threat of COVID-19, I encourage you to also see it as a challenge to be faced head-on and in the most positive way possible. Viewing coronavirus as a challenge reorients your thinking, emotions, and actions in a more constructive direction, which will make your journey through the crisis a bit more palatable and help you when you return to triathlon racing.

If you can view this crisis as a challenge to pursue rather than a threat to avoid, when you are faced with the many challenges of triathlon, whether in training or races, you will be mentally stronger and better prepared to respond positively to them.

Embrace the Adversity

Whether we like it or not, the COVID-19 crisis will be here for a while. However much you may “rage against the machine” for how it has inconvenienced you and thoroughly messed with your triathlon goals for this season, you have little control over it and it’s not going away anytime soon. So, what matters is how you choose to respond to it.

You have three options.

You can love it. But, let’s be realistic, there’s nothing to love about our current pandemic.

You can hate it. But that will simply add salt to the wound, making your experience of what is already a hardship even more unpleasant.

The final, and most realistic, option is to actually embrace the COVID-19 crisis as something that you can turn into a positive experience (at least to some degree). By accepting and embracing this pandemic, you choose to take the “fork in the road” that will feel much better and also create some benefit out of this decidedly unsettling situation; in other words, turn lemons into lemonade.

By accepting and embracing the adversity of coronavirus, you are training your mind to respond not only to the specific difficulties it presents to you, but also any form of adversity, including those you will surely confront in triathlon.

Have a Positive Attitude

When bad things happen, such as the COVID-19 crisis, it’s easy to have a pity party (“Woe is me!”) and dwell on everything that is now missing in your life or that you have lost.

But getting pulled to the “dark side” (get the Star Wars reference?) simply adds insult (you feel terrible) to the injury that has already been caused (e.g., disruption of your tri-life, including training, racing, and friends).

Your ability to maintain a positive attitude will make this whole ordeal much more manageable and pleasant. As I’m sure you have learned during shelter-in-place, along with a lot of bad stuff, a lot of good can be found as well. You may, in fact, have more time to train. You can take this extended time away from races to focus on and improve weaker aspects of your triathlon efforts. For example, you can put extra time in on the event that needs the most improvement.

Staying optimistic and hopeful will enable you to stay motivated, feel more confidence, experience less stress, and allow you to focus on the good that can come out of the lockdown.

Reignite Your Motivation

A common refrain I’m hearing from both clients and tri-friends is that, after three months of shelter-in-place, “I’m so over this!”

Along with this frustration, I have seen a decline in motivation and determination to keep working hard in training. For many triathletes, it’s getting more difficult to stick with their training plan without the rewards of racing or the social support of group swims, rides, and runs.

This reaction is natural, in response to the threat that the pandemic imposes on us, and its mobilization of our defenses is to want to withdraw from the world, curl up in bed, watch movies, and eat ice cream all day (or some variation thereof), all of which only makes your experience of the crisis even worse. This response also adds insult to injury because not only are you suffering the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, but you also feel like a lazy schlub for doing nothing.

One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, or, in our case, triathlon. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, make and then take action on a plan to become a better triathlete. Recommit to an intensive physical conditioning program, learn more about the technique and tactics of triathlon, read up on how you can eat better, or anything else that will help you prepare for the coming season. Also, reconnect with your “tri-peeps” by going for rides, runs, and swims with friends (at a safe distance, of course) or participate in virtual training and races.

It will certainly be difficult to break out of your pandemic-induced malaise, but once you do, you’ll feel a whole lot better physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

Master Your Stress

The COVID-19 crisis is stressful for everyone because of the huge disruption that it has produced in our lives. The stress is caused by the change in our daily routines, concern about the risks to our health, worry about the financial impact on our lives and lost time away from our sport, and much more. What makes the stress worse is that there are fewer outlets for relieving the stress such as going out to dinner, seeing a movie, attending a concert, being with your club or team, or even getting outside as much as we would like.

Yet, especially during these difficult times, it is essential for your physical and mental health to actively manage your daily stress. Here are a few suggestions for how you can relieve your stress:

  • Physical conditioning
  • Swim, bike, or run
  • Meditate
  • Yoga
  • Play games
  • Watch TV or movies (but not too much)
  • Read a book
  • Reach out to family and friends through Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc.
  • Eat well
  • Get enough sleep

Focus on What You Can Control

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us how something that is almost entirely out of our control can cause such disruption and distress in our lives. This loss of control is a major source of stress because we feel helpless to do anything about it. At the same time, one of the most potent antidotes to feeling out of control is to regain control as much as possible with the virus itself and in our lives in general and especially in your sport.

There is actually quite a bit you can do to take control of exposure to the coronavirus. You can follow the guidelines offered by the government and medical community including self-quarantining, social distancing, washing your hands regularly, and not touching your face with your hands. In doing so, you directly reduce the chances of contracting the virus, which would not only be really unpleasant, but would also hurt your triathlon efforts.

Separate from COVID-19, you can claim control of your life by doing your schoolwork or job well, taking care of your nutrition and sleep, recommitting to your training program, and helping others through the crisis.

Generate Positive Emotions

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is the plethora of negative emotions it elicits in us. Sadness, fear, frustration, anger, discouragement, disappointment, annoyance, loneliness, and despair are just some of the objectionable emotions that you likely experience every day to varying degrees.

One of the best protections against being overwhelmed by such negativity is to actively generate positive emotions in your life. Let’s be honest. It’s difficult to find positive emotions in the miasma of pessimism that the pandemic can produce in us. Yet, there are many to be had if you just look closely enough.

There are general life activities that can perk you up emotionally including being with your family and friends (love, caring, empathy), continuing to do your work to the best of your ability (meaningfulness, purpose, and accomplishment), and most importantly, continuing your efforts to becoming the best triathlete you can. As I’m sure you already know firsthand (but may have forgotten during the pandemic), when you swim, bike, and run, your endorphins kick in and you feel excitement, joy, contentment, happiness, pride, and inspiration, all of which you can use to counteract the bad feelings that we are vulnerable to experiencing every day of this crisis.

Be Grateful

Because there is so much bad news these days related to COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that, in the big picture, there is much to appreciate in our lives.

First, hopefully, you and your family and friends have been spared the coronavirus or, if you have contracted it, the symptoms are relatively minor.

Second, again hopefully, you are managing the financial challenges of the pandemic.

Third, all this time at home has provided the opportunity get closer as a family.

Fourth, the “shelter-in-place” time has given us the opportunity to step away from the “rat race,” slow down a bit, create more time for ourselves, and just simplify our lives.

There is a robust body of literature showing that expressing gratitude regularly reduces stress and makes us happier. Here’s how I express gratitude for my tri-life. Before and after every workout, I stop, close my eyes, take a deep breath, smile, and say “Thanks for this opportunity to pursue my triathlon dreams.”

By taking full advantage of my advice, you are, almost without realizing it, becoming more capable of handling the challenges that any form of adversity presents to you, including those found in our amazing sport. In becoming more adept in your responses to the COVID-19 crisis, you are better preparing yourself to not only manage, but, even more so, master the much smaller and less significant challenges you will face as a triathlete.

In fact, when you compete this season (fingers crossed), you’ll say to yourself, “A triathlon is nothing compared to coronavirus. If I can handle that crisis, I can handle anything. So bring it on because I’m ready to rock it!”


About Dr. Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast.

Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis, or listen to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity.