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Clarifying Your Purpose

By Dr. Mitchell Greene

Imagine it’s the morning after your upcoming race, and your tri bag has yet to be unpacked. Despite a hot morning shower, the faint outlines of age markings are still visible on your arm and calf. You are curious to see yesterday’s final results. Sitting at your kitchen table, you open your laptop and search for your name. Scanning the pages of results, you finally locate your swim, T1, bike, T2, run and final chip times. You take note of your age group finish and the winners’ times, and quickly peek at how close (or far away) you were from being first (or last). Okay, now what?

Your next race may be a few weeks off, but now is the time to consider what will leave you with a lasting feeling that your triathlon experience was worthwhile. Will faster split times determine your success, or are there other, broader ways to mark your achievement? For some, victory is tied to goals such as reshaping your body, surviving the swim, not crashing your bike, never walking during the run, or simply finishing. Others have stricter definitions of triumph (and defeat), such as drafting on the swim, sustaining a certain heart rate zone on the bike, or a PR on the run. Undoubtedly, all triathletes can benefit from clarifying their racing goals. It is an important means of sustaining motivation and enhancing focus, particularly as the demands of training become more challenging.

But, to help make triathlon truly an enduring positive experience, consider this time-honored advice: Some athletes get so caught up in trying to reach their goals that they confuse the purpose of participating with the goals of participation. In other words, they lose sight of the value of the journey while becoming consumed by their destination. By purpose, I am referring to that inner sense of vitality, excitement, and connectedness that you experience as you train your body to perform at its best. It’s that indestructible feeling you get when everything clicks during a tough workout, and even includes the excitement you may have felt when you finally registered for your upcoming race. You cannot muster those feelings sitting at the computer or watching TV. Ultimately, we do triathlons because they generate those experiences—we do them to feel fully alive.

That’s why I ask the athletes I work with to “clarify their purpose” at the same time they set their racing goals. Some athletes post on their calendars, alongside their workout goals, reminders to celebrate just being “in the game.” In this spirit, I want my athletes’ final determinations about racing to include the results of their “purpose goals” as well as their overall racing goals. So, my hope is that once you have completed your next triathlon, have checked your times, scrubbed away the final traces of body markings, and put your finisher’s medal in its final resting place, you can continue to look back on your journey and reconnect with that lasting sense of being in the game.

Dr. Mitchell Greene is the sport psychology consultant to the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon and the SheRox Triathlon series. Dr. Greene works with a range of competitive triathletes, from professional to recreational. If you have a question concerning the mental aspects of training and racing, go to and e-mail Dr. Greene. He will use some of your questions for his “Ask the Sport Psychologist” column in future issues of USA Triathlon's Multisport Zone. He is also available to collaborate with you in developing a personalized mental training plan to maximize your training programs.