Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without triathlon and endurance sport.
Wait, yes I do: bored, depressed, directionless, and a heck of a lot less resilient.
Here are 15 invaluable lessons the multisport lifestyle has taught me about life.
1. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Triathlon forces me to work on three disciplines simultaneously. Some, admittedly, I enjoy more than others. But no matter what happens, I always have something to fall back on. Battling a running-related injury? Not to worry–the low impact of swimming and cycling are there to coddle my angry joints. Traveling and without access to a pool? The hotel stationary bike works just swimmingly! In the past, I’ve made the mistake of trying to define myself as just a runner, and when injury sidelined me for six months, I felt like my identity had been stolen away. In life, I’ve also made the mistake of placing too much trust in a single person, or too much value in my career–and when they have disappointed me, I felt lost and let down. Triathlon has taught me that by spreading my interests out just a little, I can develop into a far more well-rounded person with a future full of both security and variety. The end result: passion spread out evenly among multiple arenas, several places to focus my energy and attention, and plenty of room for fun and variety.
In a similar vein, I’m still working on making it appear socially acceptable to have three boyfriends.
Just kidding. Kind of.
2. We will inevitably have to do things that we don’t want to do and aren’t very good at. But embracing the challenge is actually a lot easier than running away or harboring resentment. I am an okay runner, and cycling is by far my strongest discipline. But throw me in the pool and ask me to swim, and I look more like a goldfish cracker than a goldfish. Swimming is hard for me; I am not a natural. I have to work really hard at it, and every swim is a challenge. But instead of flogging myself day in and out by choosing to perceive swimming as some masochistic struggle or necessary evil, I have found ways to make it more tolerable, and even engaging. Swimming with Masters groups has distracted me from my demons by providing me with ample amounts of camaraderie, support, and variability. And whenever I find myself in self-critical berating mode regarding my lack of speed or imperfect technique, I respond by either actively trying to improve, or just relaxing, ignoring those thoughts, and cultivating radical self-acceptance. It’s taken me close to ten years to get to this mindset in the water, but the lesson has easily carried over into other areas of “weakness” in life outside the pool.
3. If you focus on enjoying the process, rather than the product, you’ll be a heck of a lot happier. The other morning I found myself struggling, pouring sweat, and completely alone on the bike at my gym. It was 5:30 am, and the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour. I was having one of those (now rare) days where my head started to chatter: “What the f**k are you doing? You should be sleeping! What the heck is the point of all this? You sweat too much. No other 26 year old is up doing this at this hour.” Thankfully the moment was fleeting, and within minutes I was back to my usual motivated, elated self. What caused the shift? During rough patches like these, I like to step outside of myself momentarily and take a look at the big picture. On that day it wasn’t about being up at an ungodly hour, or being alone, or feeling “different” compared to other twenty-somethings–suddenly it became about being disciplined, committed, passionate, and completely free with something that ultimately makes me a better person in the day-to-day. Gaining perspective in such a way has helped me both on the bike and off–and it’s ultimately the reason why I’ve been able to find beauty in the processes of medical school, romantic relationships, and other long-term journeys, no matter the outcome.
4. …but focus on the product every so often, because it’s fun to dream. While stepping outside of myself allows me to gain perspective and savor the process no matter how painful it may be, sometimes occasionally eying the prize can provide an equally powerful boost–albeit in a very different way. Fantasizing about that light at the end of the tunnel is just really freaking fun, and keeps me centered and reminded of my long-term goals. Right now, as I prepare for my first 70.3 race, I imagine myself crossing the finish line after a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. I’ve never experienced that before, but based on past experiences with finish lines, I know it’s going to be absolutely epic. The mere thought of how elated I’ll feel at the end of the race gets me so excited I can hardly sit still. Thinking about it while running suddenly puts me at tempo speed; if I’m on the bike I’ll have switched over into pushing some serious wattage without even noticing it.
When I was pulling long shifts in the hospital during my third year of medical school, sometimes the mere thought of myself practicing independently as a physician osteopath in the future was enough to completely transform my interactions with patients in the moment. I believe fully in living in the moment and embracing the process 99% of the time, but there’s always that 1% in which indulging in drooling over the prize can give you a good, solid kick in the rear.
5. Pace yourself. There is no better example of where triathlon has taught me to pace myself than in college and medical school. College was a breeze for me; I worked consistently every day, kept a tight schedule over my classes, work, and training, and found a rhythm that eventually felt effortless, much like autopilot. Medical school has been a very similar experience. With an inherently faster pace, though, my experience in medical school told me that I needed to slow down so that I wouldn’t bonk later on in life. My decision to take a year out between my third and fourth years of medical school for a research fellowship was completely founded upon the wisdom of pacing that I learned from endurance sport. Sometimes we need to put our egos aside and take a moment to slow down, refuel, and transition mindfully if we want to succeed in the long run. This is precisely why I stink at 5Ks.
6. Training for something you definitely won’t win, and probably won’t be recognized for by anyone other than yourself, is an unparalleled way to build character. Us “age-groupers” receive no fame, little recognition, and negative money for our training and participation in triathlon and marathon. We doggedly pound the pavement day in and day out, with little more than perplexed glances from passers-by, wondering what the heck that crazy girl is doing out jogging in 20-degree weather. No one else really cares, but we do it for ourselves. We do it for a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-respect. We do it as a cathartic outlet for feeling, thought, creativity, and physical energy. We do it as a way to test ourselves, to learn ourselves, and to ultimately come to know ourselves. Working hard at something that receives little to no external validation is humbling yet incredibly rewarding. How can this be applied to other things in life? I can easily think of a dozen ways.
7. Breathe. A good, solid, deep breath can quickly turn a lung-burner into a epiphany on the bike or run. Something about a nourishing breath is incredibly calming and can transform your perspective in a matter of seconds.
8. If you can sprint to the finish, you probably didn’t give enough earlier on. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Also, see #5.
9. Working hard most of the time feels better than relaxing most of the time.
When I was working 12-14 hour days in the hospital last year and chasing my shifts with an hour (or three) of sbr, yes, I felt crunched for time. But when I imagined my colleagues going straight home and passing out on the couch in front of their computers or televisions, I realized that I’d much rather be living the busy, active lifestyle than either the busy, stressed lifestyle or the too-relaxed lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then a relaxing day is called for–but too many relaxing days strung together call for sloth and laziness. I am definitely much happier getting my ass up at 4:30 am and having a wicked demanding day than sleeping in and having a mediocre, “just another” day.
10. Waking up early isn’t so bad after all.
11. Your body is a heck of a lot stronger than you think. I mentioned in my first post that I’m not naturally athletic. I truly and earnestly believe this to be true. Perhaps that is why training and pushing myself physically every day is so rewarding–every day I build upon a base I never thought I’d achieve.
I grew up dabbling in Irish step dancing, TKD, and MarioKart. Running the mile in gym class was my biggest fear. Riding bikes and swimming were lazy summertime activities. But with consistency and a whole, plant-based diet, I have been able to develop an athletic side to myself. Through triathlon, I have come to realize that, after a certain degree of base fitness is achieved, it is the flesh that is willing but the mind that is weak–and not the other way around.
I ran my first marathon on very little training and on a whim. Certainly, this is not advised, but it truly served as a testament to the untapped strength and resiliency of my body. On race days, I have no idea what I’m capable of, but I know that I can dig deep and surrender fully to this deep trust I’ve placed within my uncharted physical capabilities. And that feels wicked awesome.
12. Mind over matter is totally real. And powerful. This is really my favorite thing, and perhaps the reason I got into endurance sport to begin with. Endurance sport is a head game. With increasing distance and time comes increasing contributions of the mind-spirit to our ability to hang on. Training for triathlon is brain training just as much as, if not more than, physical conditioning.
13. Nutrition is king. Training is useless if I’m not fueling well for optimal energy and recovery. Interestingly, the diet that has worked best at supporting my athletic performance has also worked best for my general physical and mental well being. Being incredibly active places stresses on the body that make the obvious impact of nutrition much more apparent, and it’s been through endurance exercise that I have discovered tiny nuances about how certain foods affect the way I feel on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. I would never have come to a whole foods, plant-based diet had I not been actively exerting myself on a daily basis.
14. Don’t underestimate the power of company. Triathletes and runners have a tendency to be lone wolves, both in their training and on a social level. However, every so often camaraderie is not only a good thing–it can be crucial. This year marked the first time in close to ten years that I started running with other people. At first I was wary of this–would this new company slow me down and hold me back? Or even worse, would I fail to keep up? Would I be expected to maintain chit-chat during long runs, which usually serve as a meditative placeholder within my otherwise hectic days? Turns out all of the above came to pass, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d envisioned. In fact, quite the contrary–I’ve made some amazing new friends (twenty- and thirty-somethings I finally feel I can relate to–yay!) who pushed me to make me stronger, held me back to get me to relax, and chatted my ear off to remind me that even the lonest of lone wolves needs to fulfill a certain quota of socialization.
15. …but never forget that only you can bring yourself happiness. At the end of the day we can have our buddies, our pack, our crew, our family–but the contributions they make to our true, deep-seeded happiness are finite. We are the ones truly at the helm of our fate and happiness. By owning my goals and dreams, taking charge of them, and actively pursuing them–mostly solo–on a daily basis, I have come to discover the power and potency of self-sufficiency and a bordering-on-extreme level of independence in unraveling and actualizing those dreams. Countless hours alone in the trails and in the saddle have granted me a level of comfort and contentedness with strictly my own company, and also shown me that I can be completely happy–ecstatic, in fact–without the company of others, as long as I am progressing toward realizing a dream. And when progress happens a little bit every day, it makes for quite a happy existence.