Here at FSA Coaching, we’re pretty big on understanding why our athletes do the sports they do. We love to understand what motivates an athlete to get out of bed at 5.30am to swim laps of the pool, what drives them to push that little bit harder in a tough interval session and what they enjoy about the competitive nature of triathlon.
Triathlon is a tough sport often requiring huge personal, financial and emotional sacrifices. A good understanding of why you take part and what you get out of your sport can go a huge way to ensuring a healthy and long lasting relationship with triathlon.
I often talk about the difference between an outcome focus and enjoying the process. This blog post explains a little about what these terms mean to us; some of the pros and cons of them both; and how I believe the commitment to a positive attitude and mindset in our sport brings huge benefits to both longevity of participation and racing performance.
Triathlon, like many endurance sports, is very easily defined by performance outcomes. It’s an individual sport, primarily based around racing. We don’t know many ‘non-competitive triathletes’ (i.e. people who identify as triathletes but don’t take part in triathlons). Others in the sport are usually interested in what time you did for the Ironman, what place you came in the half-marathon, what your PB is and so on.
Couple that with the personality type most often attracted to the sport of triathlon and you end up with a serious focus on performance outcomes. For many triathletes, both age group and pro, it can be easy to feel like your race results define who you are as a person. That is the pinnacle of an outcome focus.
There’s so much that can go wrong in triathlon. From an illness or injury that lays us up for a few days (or worse still, weeks) and affects our CTL score in the build up to an A race, to choppy water causing a slower that expected swim on race day or a puncture on the bike. These things are often beyond our control. But the outcome focus doesn’t care about this.
Like the feeling after you’ve summited a high mountain, any outcome achieved, even if you ticked off all your goals, can often be followed by a post-event low that carries many symptoms of depression. That’s not to mention the feelings associated with not performing to your pre-event expectations.
The outcome focus approach is very easy to define: “I want to go under 5 hours for my half-ironman“; “I want to win my age-group“. It can be good for short term motivation: you see your mate post a sweaty post-workout photo to Instagram so you go and push that next turbo-trainer session that little bit harder as a result.
Enjoying the process
Enjoying the process, in triathlon terms, means being present in the moment throughout your training and racing. Essentially, we’re talking mindfulness. There is an awful lot of information available on mindfulness in a range of settings, including in endurance sport (here’s a great article on incorporating mindfulness into your triathlon training). To us, it boils down to one simple concept:
We all take part in triathlon for fun, so we’d better make bloody sure we’re enjoying it.
It’s really easy to get caught up in the outcome focus. That’s OK to a point, but the problem arises when you get so caught up with what you’re watch is saying (or worse still, whether you’re as quick as someone else) that you miss the majesty of the sunset, or don’t notice that elusive feeling when you’re gliding through the pool and you’ve attained swim-stroke perfection, or you can’t go for a ride with your mate because you’ve got to do a 3 hour indoor session to hit your TSS points for the day.
Being present in the moment and enjoying the process allows an athlete to do the hard yards, whilst still immersing themselves in the wonder of physical exercise, nature’s beauty and the social and emotional benefits of training with your mates. It improves our focus on good form, technique and mental conditioning. It ensures we’re doing the things we enjoy for the reasons we enjoy them.
Pros and cons
This table sets out a few pros and cons of the outcome focus and enjoying the process.
||Enjoy the process
||Easy to define goals
||Leads to intrinsic enjoyment of training and racing
|Useful for short term motivation
||Longer term benefits
|Bragging rights when you’ve got a tangible result
||Training is never (OK, almost never) a chore
||What next syndrome – never totally satisfied
||Can be a difficult mindset to get used to
|Failure to achieve goals can result in negative feelings
||Harder to define short term performance goals
|Can led to feelings of inadequacy and/or constant comparisons with other athletes
Here’s a little practical example of how the two approaches can play out.
It’s race day for your A race of the season. The swim is in the ocean and training has been going well, but there is a decent chop on the water and some good waves hitting the beach.
- Outcome focus – “I want to do the swim in 1.15.“
- Enjoy the process – “Woah, that’s some rough water. Time to put my open water practice in to effect and give it my best effort.“
Like everyone else, the swim takes you a while longer than expected. You swam to the best of your ability, rode the waves coming back to the beach like a boss, but it still took you 1.25.
- Outcome focus – “I’m 10 minutes down on my target time. That’s too much to pull back on the bike.” OR “I need to work extra hard on the bike to pull back that 10 minutes.“
- Enjoy the process – “That was really tough, but I caught some good waves, used my open water skills and nailed it in really tough conditions. Now time to focus on the next stage of the event.“
The outcome focus will either have you fretting that you’re never going to make up the 10 minute deficit, or over-exerting at the start of the bike to try and make up the time. Either way, your race plan has probably gone out the window. Enjoying the process lets you put the swim conditions to one side and focus on the next part of the event, the bike, staying in the moment and unaffected by your swim time.
Enjoyment begets performance
Don’t get us wrong, at FSA Coaching we strive for peak performance and helping our athletes get the best out of themselves. We’re fully committed to the use of performance measures, training aids and all the functionality of a service like TrainingPeaks (we use TrainingPeaks heaps to set goals and track progress and we deliver our training plans through TrainingPeaks).
But this is only one part of the coaches role and all this data is only useful if you’re getting decent levels of enjoyment out of the training and racing process. We work with our athletes to fully understand their motivation, their goals and how triathlon will enhance their lives. To us, triathlon and other endurance sport is, and always should be, so much more than “what’s your PB?“, “what position did you come?“.
For athletes who want to spend more time working on this aspect of their sport, a really good exercise is to take 30 minutes to write down why you take part in triathlon. Be honest with yourself. What is it that makes you get up early or push that bit harder? It may be confronting at first but it will help you to understand your motivation and hopefully increase your enjoyment of the sport.
I’ve spent many years fine tuning my own enjoyment of the process. For a long time, I was under the impression that my athletic performance was somehow a proxy for who I was as a person. But as I become an older and wiser(?!?) athlete, and as other pressures in life have required me to take a look at where my priorities lie, I’ve worked long and hard to make sure that training and racing enhances my life and doesn’t increase my stress levels.
Mindfulness may sound at times like you’re just pootling along enjoying the scenery. But it actually has some huge performance benefits:
- It allows you to focus on your form and technique right now;
- It allows you to put any hiccups in your training and racing behind you, without affecting your approach to the next discipline/training session. The mental benefits of this are huge.
And you can still enjoy the scenery as you go if you like!
Let’s face it, for most of us no one is ever going to pay us for our performance. We’re here for the love of it and so enjoyment of the sport is paramount. For me, the realisation of this has resulted in my race performances actually improving. As I hit my (very) late 30s, I find I’m faster than I was in my 20s when results were everything.
FSA Coaching is here to help you achieve your triathlon goals, whatever they may be. And we can help you work towards a clear understanding of why those goals are important to you. Get in touch if you want to discuss your goals or feel free to comment below and start a conversation!