For most triathletes, their journey into Ironman distance races is an evolutionary process that begins with the sprint triathlon. There are exceptions, and most likely quite a few who simply start their triathlon career as an age group with an Ironman distance race. However, these individuals are often in the minority. The evolution of your typical triathlete is something like this.
Stage 1: Sprint Triathlete:
I wanted to get in shape, so I decided to go into a sprint triathlon to lose some weight and help motivate myself to train and be healthier. These people typically need some exercise and benefit a lot from their training, training, and time spent on the bike, in the pool, and on the trails / road races. They usually feel very vulnerable and like a fish out of water during multiple triathlons, but they soon become adept at transitions, pacing strategies, and the whole triathlon culture within a couple of years of running.
Stage 2: Olympic Triathlete / 70.3 or Half-Ironman:
If a little is good, a little more is better. Or so the belief says. This may be true, especially for Olympic distance runners, depending on one’s goals. Now that’s the operative word, “goals.” The triathlete’s goals tend to shift from wanting to be healthy and in decent shape to wanting to see where one stands in comparison to their peers of age. This may not always be the case, as there are quite a few ultra-competitive speed triathletes. However, the trend in the endurance / triathlon community is “more is better” when it comes to training and racing.
At this point, you will start to see people spending more and more money on training, racing wheels, bikes, wetsuits, etc. Now the goal has definitely changed from just being healthy to being competitive in the age group. The initial goal of being healthy has suddenly taken a position secondary to placement in one’s age group. As a result, weight training is often neglected for longer on the bike / in the pool / on the road, etc. NSAIDs are beginning to be used more frequently to speed recovery from overuse injuries.
Training regiments become more demanding. The diet focuses more on weight loss than healthy nutrition. As a result, the triathlete begins to trade health for speed. Fitness increases in one’s specific sport, but overall health decreases due to overtraining, poor diet, loss of muscle mass, excessive fatigue, less time for family / loved ones, etc. Of course, this is a continuum and may or may not occur depending on physical attributes, age, life situation (children), etc. However, this is usually the case for a typical grouper in their 30s and 40s.
Stage 3: Ironman Triathlete:
The Ironman triathlete has completed the distance and may have done it several times. This is usually 3 to 5 years throughout the evolutionary process of becoming an Ironman. Again, there are those who just go out and complete an Ironman in its first year. However, I emphasize the whole word. I doubt they are competing against the Ironman as much as they are trying to survive. Completing the Ironman is the optimal word here. They just want to get over it even if it means walking most of the trail. For those of you who are competitive age groups, you have now invested a great deal of time and sacrifice in this event. Targets have now been fully shifted to placement and health has clearly taken a backseat to speed.
If weight training is not scheduled regularly, osteoporosis becomes a real problem for those men and women in their 30s and 40s who are also losing a significant amount of muscle mass due to aging but also due to weight loss and lack of exercise with weights. Injury overuse and NSAID use is commonplace alongside a highly regulated and unspontaneous lifestyle, as life now revolves around training rather than life-based training. Exhaustion is high now. There are those who are capable of compulsively completing one Ironman race after another Ironman race year after year. However, I speak in general terms and conditions. For most, the sentiment is turning strongly into one of “I’ve done that.”
This is very unfortunate as the athlete has achieved a lot in terms of proving to himself and others that he can “go all the way”. However, his initial health goal has been lost along the way. These athletes often encounter chronic injuries, poor bone health, muscle loss, strained relationships at home and work, and potential negative side effects due to overuse of NSAIDs. Most do not even know the condition of their body, but they know that they feel exhausted and need a break.
Stage 4: Refugee Triathlon:
This is the point where you come to a fork in the road. There are two directions one will choose at this point and both can profoundly affect that person’s future health. One direction traveled is to take a break and return to the Ironman distance races. Most of the time, these athletes are purely resistance machines. They are made for endurance sports and have the psychological makeup and support system that your lifestyle tolerates. Greetings to you if you are one of these people.
Then we have the Refugee Triathlon. This is the individual who has taken things as far as he can. They have put their health, their personal life and their own abilities to the limit and have decided that enough is enough and quit smoking completely. They disengage from the Ironman distance triathlon, but they also dump the baby with the bath water and disengage from their initial goal of being healthy. This has been lost in the process of becoming a competitive age group in the Ironman distance. They are refugees, so to speak. Feeling like they can’t go back to the shorter sprint triathlons and no longer wanting to compete in the Ironman distances.
I feel like these athletes are the ones who most need to save themselves. I feel like they run the risk of being isolated and excluded from sport in many ways and that is very unfortunate. There has to be a place they can go. There has to be a goal that is as honorable as Ironman but without the pain and sacrifice. The answer lies in those people realizing that they have missed their initial goal of what led them to triathlon in the first place. To be healthy, look good, and feel good. If you can control your ego at the door, sit back, and realize what motivated you to change your health in the first place, you’ve taken an important step in finding that drive to stay healthy and fit once again.
It doesn’t mean you have to go back and do an Ironman distance race. You have the right to be proud of your achievement. However, you also have the right to train and be healthy without the pressures of competing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with training for a triathlon but never running in one. Think about the distance that best suits your needs and the one that you feel most comfortable with in terms of training, time commitments and health. Make sure to strength train 2-3 times a week, even if it slows you down. You will be healthier and happier in the long run.
If you want to go one step further, simply choose the three sports you like the most and train in those areas. For me, that would be running 100 meters, cycling long distances, and training with weights. For others, it could mean downhill skiing, swimming and soccer, or mountain biking. Create your own set of sports that motivate you the most and train for them. Not everyone is cut out for swimming, biking, or running long distances. However, everyone can be healthier and more motivated by challenging themselves within their own abilities.