The Hardest Part Of A Triathlon Is Not The One You’d Expect


When talking to non-triathlon friends about starting triathlon, they usually express the same concerns. They are thinking about Ironmans, and they tell me the swim portion scares them. Of course, the swimming portion of a triathlon is challenging, but it is definitely not the hardest portion of triathlon.

The hardest part of triathlon is the constant mental game your mind is playing with you. It starts right when you hear the word triathlon for the first time and never stops. Most people fear open water swimming and see that as a barrier to even start triathlon. Once you overcome this initial fear (you can swim breaststroke!), the swimming portion is not that difficult. The mental games are happening all the time and mostly without you realizing it.

From getting to training when it is cold outside or even getting motivated to do any sport when all your races are canceled, your mind will keep challenging you. Are you ready for it?

MENTAL CHALLENGE 1: OVERCOME THE FEAR OF SWIMMING

I cannot count how many persons told me they don’t want to start doing triathlons because of the swim portion. As I wrote in my article about the swimming rules: you can, of course, swim breaststroke in all triathlons, and you can even take breaks during the swim.

Swimming in open water can be daunting at first, but it is also totally manageable with some practice. 

Once you overcome this first mental game with your mind, you are on your way to becoming a triathlete 😉

MENTAL CHALLENGE 2: DISCOVER WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO TRAIN

Every triathlete has different reasons and motivations to practice the sport. Once you discover what motivates you, the training will be much easier.

Personally, I need to race with a long term goal (8-10 months away). I am not targeting a specific time or place. I want to be in the best shape possible for this particular event. Knowing when that event will occur, I can plan my entire season with some intermediate goals (an improvement on my FTP or on my 10km run time).

On the other side, my wife, Anna, needs to have single workouts motivating her. If not, she would keep training at a low intensity. This difference makes her love to train on The Sufferfest, whereas I find it to be too pushy:

MENTAL CHALLENGE 3: TAKE DAYS OFF FROM TRAINING

Contrary to #2, there are some weeks where you are so into training that you keep training all the time. It can be that a race is coming up soon or that you don’t want to lose the fitness you have gained. When that happens, trust the plan you made weeks/months ago and respect your rest days. Not giving your body enough rest will only increase the risk of injury.

I used to have my rest day on Mondays and then workouts planned every day for the rest of the week. I found this approach frustrating instead of motivating. There was always something unplanned during the week which made me miss at least one workout, and as I had no day off planned anymore, I had no chance to bring this workout back into my week anymore. A good tip I heard once on the Trainerroad podcast is not planning a specific rest day and seeing how each week unfolds. If you made it to the last day of the week without missing a workout, take this day as a day off. This approach works much better for me.

MENTAL CHALLENGE 4: DON’T GIVE UP

At each challenging workout or during a hard time in races, your mind will want to make you stop. Slowing down 5 meters before touching the wall at the pool might seem okay, but if you keep doing it at each interval, it really starts to add up on an entire season. The same goes for riding or running. It is so easy to stop. You get an instant reward: rest. Instead, try to fight your mind and keep pushing. You are in it for the long game. 

You should naturally differentiate the mental game (where your mind is trying to make you take a break) and the physical problems (where you feel dizzy or dehydrated or in physical pain). In the latter, you should definitely stop the activity you are doing. It is not called giving up. It is simply called being an adult! 😉

MENTAL CHALLENGE 5: KEEP THINGS SIMPLE

It is not necessary to make triathlon even more complicated than it is already. I have seen plenty of triathletes overthink the nutrition for Sprint triathlons, for example. Under normal conditions, I don’t think anyone needs to have several gels, bars, and water bottles for such a short event.

The same goes for the gears. Having three sports means there are plenty of them available, and for a gear geek (like me), it can be paradise. You don’t actually need all triathlon gears, and certainly not when you are just beginning. I actually wrote the list of all gears you really need for starting triathlon. Check it here.

Try to keep things simple, enjoy the training and the races!

Apart from the fear of swimming, which is more beginner-oriented, the four other mental challenges will keep coming back at you. Just be ready to challenge them!

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