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Aiofe O’Connor knew that she needed triathlon in her life long before she understood why. There was something magical about the way running, biking, or swimming could take all of her focus, yet leave her more energized. “I could dial in to the movement and my brain felt calm, probably for the first and last time that day.” The feeling of relief was undeniable and kept her coming back for more. O’Connor also loved how triathlon created a reliable structure that she could follow day in and day out, with allotted time for eating, training, work, and rest. She trained constantly, finding rest days intolerable, and couldn’t imagine finishing a week without hitting her workout goals. “When I ended up with a stress fracture, I was shocked and devastated. The first few weeks of recovery were brutal and I didn’t handle it well.” Seeking mental health support, she ended up having a conversation that would change her life forever. “My therapist asked me what I knew about autism and then read me a list of characteristics. I started crying immediately. I knew it was me.”
Some triathletes enter the sport already knowing their brain functions in a unique way, whether they have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or Tourette syndrome. Others may discover this along their triathlon journey, as their training helps to uncover signs and symptoms that may help lead to or confirm a diagnosis. As more athletes share their experience with neurodiversity in triathlon, a community has formed to share experiences, practical advice, and support. Well-known neurodiverse athletes like Sam Holness, who recently became the first openly autistic triathlete to finish an Ironman (with aspirations of being the first known autistic pro triathlete) are blazing a path for more.Section divider
What does it mean to be neurodiverse?
Neurodiversity can be defined as differences in brain function leading to varied behaviors, processing, emotionality, mood, learning, and sociability. We’re talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD, including “Aspergers” which is a term that is no longer used), ADD/ADHD, Tourette syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), dyslexia, and other conditions. While there is some disagreement about what constitutes neurodiversity, there is a growing consensus that we should move away from pathologizing and towards seeing these cognitive variations as evidence of biodiversity. Each diagnosis has many different facets, gradients of severity, and affect people differently. While some neurodiverse (ND) folks need quite a bit of support to manage everyday tasks and some don’t need much at all, the concept that there is something wrong with ND folks just doesn’t sit right. As those of us on the spectrum sometimes say, “We’re just wired differently.”
The way an ND person approaches situations may be quite different than a neurotypical (NT) person. They may notice things that NT people do not, may feel sensory input from the environment around them differently, may communicate differently, and typically have different needs when it comes to burning energy or conserving it. Contrary to what you might see on the big screen, you can’t tell who is ND just by looking at them. However, as you’ll read here, you’ve probably been passed by one of us in a triathlon.
Though all kinds of neurodiversity are represented in triathlon, the focus for this article will be on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD, since both conditions include several significant traits. Not all autistic people also have ADHD and vice-versa, but multiple studies show that 30-70% of people with autism also meet the criteria for ADD/ADHD. (That being said, this article in no way reflects the experiences of all neurodiverse people or all types of neurodiversity.)
The Venn diagram above contains some characteristics that can create incredible opportunities for athletes, but also may present incredible challenges. The experts on this topic are the athletes themselves, and while not all of us have everything figured out, we are all working on having a positive relationship with sport in our own way.Section divider
Triathlon is a great place for neurodiverse minds to thrive
The triathlon community is not known as one of the most diverse, but it might be very neurodiverse. There’s a good reason for this. Some of the characteristics of an endurance sport like triathlon can be especially attractive to ND folks and some of the characteristics of ND folks might make them really good at endurance sports.
What’s great about triathlon for ND athletes? Plenty. Like O’Connor, Lucie Hanes, an ASD/ADHD endurance athlete, journalist, and consultant from Colorado, feels that training helps keep her focused. “Training makes me feel like I can’t be anywhere else. I don’t want to be. That’s a first for me because my mind is always in so many different places.” Gencho Nomad, another ASD endurance athlete and audio engineer from Bulgaria, agrees. He no longer struggles with organizing his day and believes that the structured nature of training is what has allowed him to become more productive. “Training solved a problem in my life. It’s a resynchronization of my whole being, normalizing my habits.” Mette Harrison, an ASD All-American triathlete and writer from Utah, relies on a good workout to manage her very high energy levels. “I have to find something that gets my body the stimulation, an excess of energy that has to be released in some way.” Hannah Read, a triathlete with ADHD, credits the sport with connecting her to a community of friends, helping her overcome an eating disorder, and providing a sense of efficacy and accomplishment that she says she can not find anywhere else.
The traits that might make ND athletes especially well-suited to an endurance sport like triathlon stem from their tendency to hyperfocus and possibly higher pain tolerance, according to research on objective pain sensitivity in ASD folks. Hyperfocus, defined as the ability to be single-minded about pursuing and understanding information, is responsible for turning ASD people into true experts on anything they lay their sights on. Hanes believes that ND traits are a superpower, pointing to her ability to endure as something that has given her a tremendous amount of confidence. ”I think being autistic makes us relentless. Having that focus and determination is hugely beneficial in the middle of a race. You’re going to finish no matter what.” Read agrees that hyperfocus helps both in and out of race situations. “I often channel my hyperfocus into topics related to triathlon, such as race-day nutrition, gear, and sports psychology. While I don’t know that this improves my performance, it certainly makes me a more knowledgeable athlete.” Stefanie, an ASD endurance athlete, uses her curious nature to stay on top of her health. “My incessant love of researching and problem-solving has helped me gain knowledge about running, nutrition, injuries, and how to take care of my body in general.”Section divider
Managing the power of neurodiversity: The missing “off-switch”
With all of this focus and determination, there can also be serious challenges for the ND athlete in the long-term. One major challenge is completely opposite of what most NT folks, who may find themselves lacking in motivation or grit on occasion, experience: We don’t know when to quit. The reasons for this are varied. It could be the aforementioned higher pain tolerance or hyperfocus. It could also be a desire to maintain routines, since ASD people typically cling to a very structured schedule. Another hypothesis could be that training provides a type of “stim,” or repetitive movement that helps ND people focus, concentrate, cope with nervousness, or even just “burn energy.” (And yes, plenty of people who are not ND engage in stimming behavior like fidgeting, tapping, and fiddling with objects.) No matter the reason, some ND athletes may have a hard time backing off the intensity and taking rest days.
The athletes themselves acknowledge this challenge. Nomad says that it has taken him many years of trial and error to understand where to draw the line. “I can easily cross my limit. I sometimes understand that I have crossed it, but too late.” He seems to always be trying to avoid or recover from injury, but still doesn’t always get it right, blaming a still-clicking ankle on his reluctance to recover properly. Harrison says that sometimes she wishes she could be a “less good” triathlete, since her drive to attain an energy release from training can be obtrusive in her life. She knows that people admire her discipline, but she doesn’t always see it as a positive thing. “I don’t see why there is anything particularly admirable about me doing this thing. I do it for very specific reasons. It gives me something that I need. I’m kind of jealous of people who don’t have to have this regimented, rigid approach to the world where they need to plan out their whole lives by race schedules.” Geoff, an endurance athlete and computer programmer from California, acknowledges a drive to feel physically exhausted after every training session. He’s slowly acclimated to getting that need met every couple of weeks now to avoid burnout, though he has refrained from most heavy training for the last year and a half.
Hanes is also taking a break from training but notes that a feeling of self-doubt contributed to her overuse injury. She believed that endurance sport helped her to level the field and therefore used it to cope with difficult emotions. “I have always had the sense that in order to be good enough I needed to do more than other people. That makes me equal to them if I do more–or it gives me a buffer so that I can make up for my inadequacies. I think, I ran ten miles this morning so I’m allowed to be here.”
ASD is still not well-understood in women and qualitative research on women diagnosed later in life shows that they can experience significant mental disorder as they struggle with school, work, relationships, and self-esteem. Lucie’s recent ASD diagnosis has helped her make sense of many things in her life, including how to have a healthier, more balanced relationship with training.Section divider
How to thrive as a neurodiverse triathlete
In a world where standards are defined by NT folks, success may look different for an ND athlete. Sure, we want to be the best we can be, but our path to achievement will likely be our own. Hanes says that her ultimate goal is to understand where her limits are but to never go over them. She relies on working with a coach, but not for the reason that most people would seek guidance. ”I am not the type of person that needs accountability to do something. I need accountability to not do something.” It has been helpful to her to stay within strict limits for training and she prefers to outsource the decisions to someone else.
Harrison learned that while diet apps are helpful for many people to gain an understanding of their nutrition, they could also lead to obsession for an ND person who is likely to fixate on data. A chance introduction to a popular calorie and macro-counting app led her to a fifteen-year-long habit of logging every morsel of food despite never having any issues with her weight. Weaning herself off using it was extremely difficult, and she cautions others against using similar products.
Many ASD athletes also advocate staying away from activity trackers to avoid distraction, negative emotions, and intrusive thoughts. Nomad stopped using an activity tracker when he realized that he couldn’t stop thinking about how his numbers would look while he was running. He started to fear showing how much effort he was putting into certain workouts and it affected every step. Read uses an activity tracker, but also worries about being judged for her performances and therefore keeps her profile private. “ When I do get a disappointing result, I cannot stop thinking about it—sometimes months or years down the road. These thoughts are often unwanted and intrusive.” Geoff, who works with data professionally, acknowledges that it can become obsessive. “I often feel that I have failed in some way if I forget to turn on my tracker.”
Read has thrived by building her skill set to manage her mental health without triathlon. When she became sidelined by tendonitis and COVID in 2022, she was still able to manage her symptoms and regulate her mood because she had built a support system. The confidence boost has been a game-changer, and she now knows that she has what it takes to get through the ups and downs. Having other options like meditation, non-sport activities, or even therapy can be critical for ND athletes.Section divider
We are unique, but not alone
While there may not be much representation of ND triathletes in the media currently, and a 2022 paper attests to a hefty amount of stigma about coming out as ASD, there are likely many of us out here swimming, biking, and running. A recent literature review of research on neurodiversity estimates that 20% of the population is ND. And since many of us are craving a more ND-friendly sport experience, there is a huge amount of opportunity to raise awareness. By sharing our stories, we may be able to enjoy better training, coaching, and racing experiences–a topic we’ll explore in an upcoming Part II of this series.
The first step is to raise our confidence. It’s important that the ND athlete listens to and respects their intuition–even when it doesn’t line up with “common knowledge.” For those of us who have often felt like outsiders, this can be tough, but it’s a necessary step toward optimal performance. As Harrison says, “One of the things about being autistic is that you live in ‘Opposite World.’” It can take a while to get used to it, but this is our normal. And it is perfectly OK. We will likely have different preferences for clothing and food due to sensory issues. Many of us prefer to train alone or train without talking. Some of us will only train outdoors to feel free and some will only train indoors where everything can be controlled. One thing is for certain–some ND athletes will truly struggle with their mental and physical health if they follow the crowd. It doesn’t mean triathlon isn’t for us. It means we have to make it our own.
Tips for Success for neurodiverse athletes, by neurodiverse athletes
- Work with a coach or other accountability partner to set limits
- Avoid over-researching strategies for training, nutrition, etc.
- Limit use of activity trackers and diet apps
- Build non-sport coping/management skills
- Take note of what works for you and honor it–even if it’s “different”
- Reach out to other ND athletes to share stories and build community
Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.