Peace and War

“Those of us who participate in triathlons are unusual people. Most all the participants have jobs and families, and top of taking care of these, they swim and bike and run, training very hard, as part of their ordinary routine. Naturally this takes a lot of time and effort. The world, with its commonsensical viewpoint, thinks their lifestyle is peculiar. And it would be hard to argue with anyone who labeled them eccentrics and oddballs.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

I raise my goggles off my face, panting. We’re only 20 minutes into swim squad and I’m completely out of breath. I look up to the pool deck and see a fellow swimmer snapping off her swim cap and clambering out of the pool. I’m surprised. She’s one of the fittest in our squad and usually leads the ‘train’ (that I hang off like a desperate Looney Tune character). “Yeah, I’m not feeling it tonight. Got nothing to train for anyway, you know?” I nod my head. I know the feeling. I remember that she had been tirelessly training for 70.3 Iron Man. Suddenly the motivation and dedication that comes along with a looming event had evaporated. After a race the gleam and promise of training can dull, leaving with you to stare directly at a pile of work to do.

It didn’t feel good to see her leaving the pool dejected, especially someone who was easily fit and healthy enough to swim a few more laps. Why is this feeling so common amongst triathletes? Why do we put races on such high pedestals? How can we create a training schedule that doesn’t drive us into anxiety or off training altogether?

We treat race day too differently

It’s true, weird stuff tends to happen on race day. I’ve had chains fall off, broken water bottles and watches that don’t turn on. But once you control for them, you can learn to take these sorts of upsets in your stride.

Most people follow the ultimate rule of racing “Don’t try anything new on race day” by literally making sure nothing is new. They try not to wear new shoes or new goggles. But we only need to remember this rule because we treat races so differently than training. If you race like you train, you won’t likely do anything new.

We cling onto race day for too long

I’m looking at my race number from a recent triathlon. Something about it seems special. It was a fun race. It seemed like an important one. And this race number, maybe it’s worth keeping as a memento. Maybe it will inspire me… But instead of framing it and lovingly placing it on my mantelpiece I scrunch it into a ball and throw it in the trash.

I think throwing away your race bib is an important gesture, since it reminds us to stop venerating race day.

“It’s a nice memento.”Don’t worry, you’ll remember it.
“This was a really good race!”Oh so you’ll chuck out your race bibs for the races that weren’t so good? Where do you draw the line?
“It will be like the triathlon never happened!”Yep. But it’s funny you never complain about training sessions fading away…
“It will look nice in my collection.”Nobody cares about your collection of trophies.

We think we can control race day with the right training

For a bigger, longer, tougher race, a triathlete will need to train more. They might need to show up more often. Take it more seriously. Up to a point that makes sense. The trouble is when you start believing that training will solve all your problems. The training starts getting more specific, more targeted or more unique. I’ve seen quite a few triathletes who were happily turning up to group training become distant and anxious when coaches start devising complex personal programs.

Generally, we want to hear and do things that encourage our sense of control. Iron-man winner Chelsea Sodorao typifies this outlook, admitting that “she sought refuge in the training, in an environment that felt controllable.” This grip on control only gets tighter the more emphasis is placed on ‘the big race’. The target keeps getting smaller. If doing a fun run is like throwing a piece of paper into a trash can, training every day of the year for one race is like trying to shoot a target while on a rocking ship at sea.

We care about races too much

I’m most proud of the fact that the same singlet has lasted 4.5 years of sweat!

How you approach training and races (peace and war), really depends on your personality. Comparing myself to others in my training groups, I seem to be less competitive than most. This means I race less frequently and my performances are less than they could be. But this ambivalence can also become an asset.

In September 2018, I signed up for my first triathlon. It was an olympic distance in Santa Cruz. The funny thing was, I wasn’t doing a whole heap of swimming, biking or running. I was actually more interested in strength stuff in the gym. But I had made up my mind, and it went well. The experience was exciting, fun, memorable. Things went wrong, things went right.

4.5 years of heavy aerobic activity later, I realize I had approached this first triathlon with the right mind. I had no expectations. I had no history. I gave it everything I thought I had. 

The Rucksack Framework

If you want peace, prepare for war


If you were a soldier in the Civil war you would be expected to carry “forty rounds of ammunition in the cartridge-boxes and four days’ rations in haversacks.” This was your go-bag, that meant you were ready. I think a similar approach could apply to triathlon training. By being ready, it could help counter some of the gravity pull of big races and help you become more consistent.

  1. Treat your training program like you might have to do a race next week.
  2. If you’d like, sign up for a race in the future (next week, next month or next year, it doesn’t matter).
  3. Rest when you feel tired.
  4. Keep going.

Success looks like consistency and readiness. It looks like getting to the end of the swim session, more often than not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: