Being an Ironman athlete requires a huge investment in time, money and emotional strength. For many people, it takes on the commitment levels of a second job as more and more “free time” is spent swimming, cycling and running in pursuit of higher levels of endurance and speed. And the more you train, commit and invest, the higher the expectations are for success from yourself as well as from the people you know. For some, the pressure of increasing expectations to perform is too much and has a negative impact on other areas of life, including family and career. And ultimately, this creates a snowball affect whereby your race performance begins to suffer as well.
I call it the Ironman Black Hole and in my 20+ years of training, racing and coaching experience, have found that no one is immune to falling into it. While participation in our sport has so many positive benefits including boosting one’s physical fitness, personal health, self-esteem and self-confidence it can also have negative consequences when taken to an extreme, including misdirected focus, failed relationships and even poor health. If you’re a veteran of Ironman racing, I bet you know of at least a couple people in your training circles who have allowed things to spiral a little out of control.
How does one cope and find a balance while managing their personal expectations?
I’m not a mental health expert, but as a coach I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe hundreds of athletes over the years and through those observations, I’ve formed a few key opinions on how best to maintain a sense of balance in life while performing in Ironman at peak levels.
1. Train Smart, not just Long and Hard:
Basically, this means that you need to try to achieve maximum gains in form and fitness with the least amount of training time commitment and energy expenditure. I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to “pay the price” and log the miles. I’m suggesting that you need to log the miles strategically in the course of your annual training cycle, and focus on quality training at other times. Every training session reaches a point of diminishing returns, and as an example, for some people a long ride of 4 hours might yield better results than a 6 hour bike ride. Make it your goal to maximize your gains in the least amount of time, develop a training plan around that goal (or have someone do it for you) and execute the plan.
2. Training is only PART of the Performance Equation:
Rest and recovery is of equal importance to actual training. I know of several dedicated athletes who burn the candle at both ends, squeezing in 20+ hour training weeks with busy professional careers and the needs of a young family. Eventually, something has to take a back seat and that’s usually sleep and recovery time. When this happens, performance suffers and the athlete gets lulled into the trap of training more to overcome that perceived loss in performance, when in reality the key is to train less and rest more! Balance is critical… rest more for better results.
3. Get Over Yourself:
You may notice that Ironman training is inherently a selfish endeavor. You spend large blocks of time focused on your training and recovery needs, not to mention large sums of money paying for your expensive hobby. Then once you start having some success at the races, your perceived sense of self-worth can expand, as does the size of your head.
I’ve observed that the best athletes who are in the lifestyle over the long term stay grounded and maintain a sense of gratitude and remain humble for what they are able to accomplish as athletes. Not everyone has the ability to do what we as Ironman athletes and sometimes we tend to take for it granted.
Try to give back by mentoring/coaching others, volunteering at events or racing for a charitable cause. It’ll help keep you focused as well as help you keep things in proper perspective.
4. Remember Why you Train and Race:
We all have different reasons for doing Ironman. 99.9% of people who participate in triathlon do it as a recreational pursuit and not to generate income to support themselves and their families. However, if you go to a National caliber race, you’d swear that every bike on the rack is worth over $5K+ and that every athlete with their sponsored logo’d team kits, strutting their stuff, was a full-time pro racing to win and to get a paycheck to put food on the table. We know this is not the case.
I’ve seen athletes get so worried about how they do and what people will think about them based on their results, they tighten up and get paralyzed with fear, ending up having sub-par performances and in the process, not enjoying the race experience.
Research and experience shows that an athlete in a relaxed but focused state performs at optimal levels. Don’t spend unnecessary emotional energy worrying about what other people think of your result, because truth be told, no one really cares as much as you do! (Except perhaps your coach!)
Remind yourself frequently, especially before your key “A” race, that the sun will shine the next day regardless of your placing in the age group. Have fun out there on the course, keep it loose and remind yourself of why you race and your performance will reflect your attitude.
5. Learn to Deal with Adversity:
There is one thing that is guaranteed during the course of an Ironman and that is that something “bad” or unplanned will happen. Sounds a little bit like life, huh? The day is long and hard and there are so many moving parts and variables, from getting goggles knocked off in the swim to having a mechanical on the bike to puking up your GU on the run. Everyone out there racing with you wants that “perfect” day, but few, if any, will experience it. Learn how to deal with adversity and not allow it to have a negative impact on your performance. Plan for it (i.e. know how to change your tire quickly) and be mentally prepared to deal with it if and when it happens. Remember, having a good attitude is a key to race day success when things don't go your way. And whatever you do, never throw your bike or scream at a volunteer!
In reviewing these five key observations, I notice that I’ve been guilty, at least to some degree, of falling to the dark side on a few of them at one point or another over my 20+ year triathlon career and have learned the hard way how to overcome. My hope is that you can use these observations to better your training, balance your life, lift your attitude and take your Ironman performance to the next level!
Good luck and train smart!
Troy Jacobson is a former pro, creator of the Spinervals Cycling video series, Head Tri-Coach for Life Time and an Official Coach of IRONMAN. Learn more at www.coachtroy.com