Thinking of pursuing triathlon more seriously? Read on for a few adaptations and ajustments you might have to make.
Triathlon is not a hobby
Triathlon is not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. Serious triathlon training cannot be divorced from the rest of your life. So much time and energy is required to train for a sport with so many interlocking elements—from hydration to calorie intake, from time management to ensuring enough sleep and rest, from the time commitment required for actual training to expenses for equipment and travel—that anyone thinking of committing to the sport needs to stop and seriously consider if it is something they are willing to take on.
Gains are incremental
Just as triathlon gains are incremental, so they are also long-term. There is no quick fix. For older athletes, that mantra is even more important. Slow and steady progress reduces the risk of injuries. Just as gains are expected to be incremental, so will be the extra stresses and strains that are placed on the aging body. Those increasing stresses and strains that come from longer training sessions and higher intensities need to be kept under control and managed.
The body is broken down in training, only to be strengthened again in recovery. However, that breaking down of the body has to be controlled for it to be safe. Above all, your commitment to the triathlon lifestyle has to be sustainable and, ultimately, enjoyable. If you are not enjoying it, then why are you doing it?
There are easier ways to get fit and stay healthy. In addition, that same patient, incremental approach to performance progress has to be supported by a mental attitude that is in sync with the same long-term goals. Just as your training schedules should not expect fast returns and quick fixes, so your lifestyle commitment to triathlon should reflect that lasting, long-term outlook.
Because the commitment to triathlon is a lifestyle choice with incremental gains, and not a quick fix that can be completed with a speedy two-month program, it has to be tempered with balance. Balance is necessary in life and in triathlon. Triathlon should not, and cannot, consume your life. Triathlon training should complement your life, not control it. It should ultimately enhance all the other aspects of your life—family, friends, social life, work and career.
In addition, executed correctly, triathlon can be a very effective stress reliever (as can other endurance sports such as marathon running). The triathlon lifestyle, then, should alleviate stress, not add to it.
Importantly, a realistic appraisal should be made of your goals and desires for triathlon so that they fit in with all the other aspects of your life. That is why the importance of a realistic and achievable set of goals is fundamental to the triathlon lifestyle, along with a strategy to achieve them and a complementary training schedule based around those goals.
Realistic goals and an ongoing training schedule should be looked upon as tools to not only improve personal triathlon performance and health generally, but also bring balance into your life as you make the transition to a triathlon-oriented lifestyle.
First, a word about calories and the need to consume a certain amount each day. Your body is a finely tuned engine. However, for that engine to operate correctly it requires fuel. Not just any fuel, but the right type of fuel. If the body does not get sufficient fuel (i.e. calories), it will not have enough energy to continue training at a high level.
Let’s do some math! As a general rule of thumb, in terms of calorie intake, a person needs fourteen times their body weight in pounds to maintain their weight. Let’s take me as an example. At 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, I need to consume about 2,800 calories each day (14 × 200) to maintain my weight. I probably burn 500–600 calories an hour in triathlon training. If I average two hours of training a day (2 × 500–600 = 1,000–1,200 calories burned), I need to consume another 1,000–1,200 calories a day, on top of my 2,800 calories, just to maintain my weight. That is 3,800–4,000 calories a day just to maintain my current weight.
The problem for anyone involved in ongoing triathlon training is that if you do not consume enough calories, the next day or so, the body will tire and you will feel drained, tired and sapped of energy. When the body trains while tired, the likelihood of injury increases. Personally, I feel the impact of insufficient calories the very next day. Two or three consecutive days with insufficient calories and I feel exhausted. This is not unusual.
You have to consume enough calories each day or your triathlon training will suffer and, consequently, you will feel tired and lacking energy in all other areas of your life. Being tired will lead to loss of concentration and motivation, and to a reduction of correct athletic technique, which will increase the chance of injury. If losing weight is one of your goals, then, just like triathlon training, the change needs to be incremental. A weight loss rule of thumb is to get within 500 calories of your daily calorie intake goal. Any more than a 500-calorie deficiency will result in extreme fatigue. Weight loss, just like triathlon training, needs to be realistic and sustainable. There are no quick fixes for weight loss, especially if you want to maintain quality triathlon training while you try to shed some pounds.
You should aim for a balanced approach to training as well as a balanced approach to your diet. As mentioned above, it is not just a question of calories, but the right kind of calories. That is where nutrition management comes in. The first rule is to get enough calories. The second rule is to get the right kind of calories. You would not put diesel into a petrol engine, would you? Just as you have to reach a balance between commitment to triathlon training and all the other areas of your life, so you need balance in your diet.
Those on a vegetarian diet will face their own particular challenges to provide enough calories, and the right kind of calories, to sustain year-round triathlon training. Most age-group triathletes are pressed for time as it is, without having to become a full-time chef in order to provide enough calories and nutrition in their diet. However, even if you don’t have time to prepare your own meals from scratch using vegetarian staples such as beans and lentils to maintain a sufficient protein intake, there are now a wide range of convenient (and appetizing!) high-protein, low-fat meat substitutes available from most supermarkets and health food shops.
In fact, there is nothing to stop anyone tailoring their own dietary requirements to the needs of triathlon training, just carefully evaluate your current food habits before deciding on a balanced diet that will complement your new healthy lifestyle.
Most triathletes are ‘type A’ people, meaning that they always have something going on, and there are never enough hours in the day. The older they get, the more they have going on. Usually this is because they are successful in what they do, especially in business or their career. Very often, a factor contributing to their success is the ability to manage their time effectively, so they can fit everything in. Often, though, the discipline of triathlon, and the resulting fallout into the rest of their life, will come as a bit of a shock to the system.
If you hope to be successful in triathlon and avoid letting the long training time commitments negatively affect your life, you will need to become proficient in time management. If you are proficient already, fitting in the extra training hours should be a breeze. If you are not, and are used to a more laissez-faire attitude to daily scheduling, prepare for an attitude adjustment!
Reality check: an unorganized or ‘go-with-the-flow’ approach does not equate to less stress. Always being in a rush because you have not managed your time and commitments effectively is stressful. Reduce that stress by having a time management strategy. You are going to have to have a preplanned training schedule and training strategy anyway, so why not have one for the rest of your busy life?
Effective time management is not simply a luxury reserved for the committed triathlete. It is a vital component in your triathlon arsenal. A little bit of planning will reduce stress and maximize available time in order to allow you to fit in all the things you want to do.
Training time commitment
While we are discussing lifestyle changes and time management, it is worth mentioning the many hours per week that will be required by your training schedule. If you are coming to triathlon from a single sport such as running, you will know the time commitment required to advance past the beginner stage of an endurance sport, whether you are a seasoned veteran or a weekend warrior. Multiply that by three, and then you are at the starting point for triathlon training!
If you are taking the plunge into triathlon as your first truly organized sport, you have to make sure all the training that is going to be required can fit into your weekly life and work schedule. The time commitment to your training schedule is really the first true test of how serious you are about triathlon. Once you are on the triathlon treadmill, with self-perpetuating expectations of performance improvements and subsequent races, that time commitment does not get any less. In actuality, it will increase along with your personal commitment to improvement and more elaborate, harder-to-achieve goals.
Of course, ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better.’ Quality of training is often just as important as quantity of training. However, even moderate personal success at a short sprint triathlon race is going to require many hard hours of physical training, and also mental training.