Embracing the Healthy Side of Triathlon–and Avoiding the Dark Side

The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training helps multisport athletes identify and overcome the psychological barriers that the mind places on athletic ability with practical information and skills that will ultimately lead to better performance. In this excerpt from the book, author Jim Taylor, PhD, offers his guidelines for keeping triathlon healthy.

Chapter 16: Embracing the Healthy Side of Triathlon

Triathlon can be a wonderful, life-expanding experience that can allow you to find meaning, satisfaction, and joy in an activity that promotes health, cultivates relationships, and extends your physical and psychological horizons. Yet, triathlon also has a dark side. For some, triathlon can be a harmful experience that is physically debilitating, emotionally crippling, and socially damaging. Because of the extreme nature of triathlon, it can be a breeding ground for unhealthy aspects of personality that can lead to a life of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Entering the Dark Side

People who enter the dark side of triathlon are driven by a variety of unhealthy motivations, including self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. At the center of these motivations is the need to feel better about themselves and to be free from anxiety. By achieving triathlon success, those on the dark side believe they’ll receive the respect they deserve from others, the love they crave from themselves, and the inner peace they are seeking. Unfortunately, these unhealthy needs can be exacerbated rather than alleviated by their involvement in triathlon.

Dangers of the Dark Side

Living on the dark side of triathlon isn’t just a frustrating experience in which you never seem to find what you seek; it also presents a number of very real dangers that can be harmful:

  • Overtraining, burnout, illness, and injury.
  • Cheating, in the form of illegal substances or drafting in races.
  • Neglect of non-triathlon relationships.
  • Loss of commitment to career.

Warning Signs of the Dark Side

You may now be asking yourself which side of triathlon you’re on. Few triathletes would readily admit that they do triathlons for the wrong reasons. Warning signs can include:

  • A profound need to train that is expressed as a compulsion to work out excessively.
  • Difficulty taking rest days during training or tapering before a race.
  • Significant performance anxiety before a race.
  • Excessive self-criticism in which you castigate yourself for your perceived shortcomings as a triathlete.
  • The frequent presence of unhealthy emotions, such as anxiety, frustrated, depressed, or angry.

Seven Keys to Triathlon Balance

To ensure that you don’t enter the dark side of triathlon, keep the role that triathlon plays in your life in perspective. Triathlon should foster experiences that enhance all parts of your life. In other words, triathlon should make you a better person.

Be a human being, not a human doing. In our “it’s all about results” world, many people can base how they feel about themselves on what they accomplish rather than who they are. Most of human doings’ efforts are directed toward achieving goals so they can validate their self-esteem and gain some modicum of contentment. Human beings, in contrast, base how they feel about themselves on who they are as people, not what they accomplish. Being a human being allows you to seek out challengesand fully realize your ability. It also allows you to accept the inevitable failures you will experience in pursuit of your goals.

Redefine success and failure. Our culture has defined success and failure in ways that are narrow and ultimately interfere with your achieving success. Success has been defined simplistically in terms of results. At the same time, our culture has made failure even more intolerable to contemplate—not living up to our culture’s definition of success makes you a failure. For triathlon to be a truly rewarding experience, create your own definitions of success and failure. Broaden your definition of success to include gaining satisfaction and joy in your training, having fun at races, and achieving personal bests. Failure can be defined as not giving your best effort and not enjoying the experience.

Keep triathlon in perspective. Triathlon is an absorbing sport. You can become so involved with its many facets, from training to nutrition to gear to races, that, without realizing it, it can take over your life. When this happens, you be drawn to the dark side. Realize that triathlon can be an important part of your life, but it is not life itself. With this view of the sport, it can still play a central role for you and be a wonderful source of satisfaction and enjoyment, but it won’t become a burden to your triathlon efforts or other parts of your life.

Maintain balance. Because of triathlon’s complexity, it’s challenging to maintain balance, particularly when you’re training for longer races. Yet balance is essential to leading a meaningful, satisfying, and joyful life: devoting sufficient time to achieve your triathlon goals taking time to share with family and friends, remaining fully committed to your professional life, and enjoying other activities that you value.

Have healthy expectations. Having healthy expectations means setting goals that you can achieve if you give your best effort. Healthy expectations can involve enjoying your race experience or attaining a personal best. They can mean responding well to adversity or persisting when you’re really hurting. The key is to establish expectations over which you have control and that will encourage success (as you define it) and satisfaction in their pursuit.

Feel the love. Triathlon should be about love: love of yourself, love of the sport, and love for others. Yet because triathlon is a competitive sport, it can sometimes turn into a love for results and you may find that your love of the sport may wane. The true end result of feeling the love in triathlon is that you will have a wonderful experience and you often get the results you want.

Appreciate the benefits. Triathlon offers you many physical, mental, and social benefits. It encourages a healthy lifestyle and a high level of fitness. Triathlon introduces you to passionate people who lead vigorous lives. The sport challenges you to push your limits and expand your horizons. Triathlon presents you with opportunities that can teach essential life lessons to help you grow. The sport can be a source of profound meaning, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Ultimately, triathlon offers you many and diverse experiences through which you can enhance your life.

The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training helps multisport athletes identify and overcome the psychological barriers that the mind places on athletic ability with practical information and skills that will ultimately lead to better performance.

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