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How to Fit Triathlon into Your Busy Schedule

by Dr. Mitchell Greene

When it comes to starting your triathlon training, the first obstacle everyone confronts is just finding the time to swim, bike and run. As Steve, a hopeful triathlete recently said, “I already feel like my schedule is not my own, so adding in three sports seems impossible.” Like Steve, to make real progress arranging your life to include morning pool swims, weekend bike rides and runs around your neighborhood, your first order of business is to appreciate who has been setting your schedule. Nobody other than you decides what sits at the top of your priority list, and what qualifies as less important. In other words, even though you may feel like you have no time, and that your schedule is controlled by others, your day-to-day activities are really a set of personal choices (mixed in, of course, with some unmovable obligations).  

Here’s a plainly simple tool you can use to help understand why you might vault certain life choices ahead of getting into triathlon shape: take a close look (or write it down if you are so inclined) at what you spend your time doing, and in a deliberate fashion ask yourself why you are choosing to spend it that way. Inevitably, new triathletes report, they “found” time they didn’t even know they had. In other words, this tool will help you see what’s really stopping you?   

For example, I recently asked Amy, a stay-at-home mom and aspiring triathlete, to more closely examine her decision to allow only family members to babysit her mildly autistic son. Although a bit nervous, Amy explored with me her trepidation about leaving her son with a “stranger.” We centered on this conversation because Amy acknowledged it was probably her main obstacle to freeing up more time for herself. Amy wanted to rediscover the athlete in her, and eventually pursue her lifelong goal of completing a triathlon. In time, Amy worked through her concern about being a “bad mom,” and eventually found people other than family that she trusted with her child. Amy embodied a powerful message for anyone entering the sport of triathlon; that being an athlete shouldn’t mean having to “lose” in order to win. However, getting into shape may require having a frank conversation with yourself about why you choose to spend time in the way you do. 

While Amy’s personal situation may seem dramatic, many of us must make similarly courageous decisions to put our athlete-selves up near the top of our priority list. Starting a new triathlon training plan will likely lead you to discover that you can handle more than you expected, if you successfully shift other life goals and priorities around your training, ensuring a better balance between your family, work and newfound sport goals.   

In Steve’s case, he learned that his perfectionistic tendencies that aided him in building a successful career actually were hampering his ability to even begin his training. Even when Steve had the time to train, he wouldn’t, and blamed his busy travel schedule on the fact that he couldn’t consistently work out. Steve learned through self-examination that his “go big or go home” attitude was a barrier to him becoming a triathlete. He benefitted from repeated reminders that his original purpose on becoming a triathlete was based on spending time with his wife, who loves to train. Steve had fallen into a pressure trap by viewing triathlon as another activity where he had to prove how good he can be. As with Amy, Steve benefitted from examining his choices more fully, and eventually learned that “persistence over perfection” is an apt mantra for his personality type. Soon enough, Steve was able to accept that a short 20-minute run or a 45-minute spin on a hotel’s exercise bike was better than no run or bike at all. Like most things triathlon, starting simple, small and easy is best. 

If taking 100 percent responsibility for your calendar and becoming more self-aware is step No. 1, then the next step to begin your triathlon training is to join a swim, bike or run group, or a local triathlon club. The benefits of training with others is well-documented, as a solid group of training mates can make the mundane workouts more interesting, the hard sessions less painful, and the early morning alarms less depressing. Additionally, the built-in structure of a set training schedule can help make you more accountable, and with increased consistency of course comes quicker gains in fitness (which, in turn will help keep your motivation going). Moreover, working out with a group will help you learn the tips and tricks only more experienced triathletes would know, such as how to smoothly get out of clips on the bike, what goggles work best when swimming outside, and what workouts give you the most bang for your buck.   

Finally, athletes new to triathlon might understandably avoid picking a goal race because just figuring out how to fit it all in seems like enough of a commitment. However, selecting a small, local race to train for (and letting people know about it) can give a new triathlete a heightened sense of goal-driven behavior. Traveling with your training group to the race could also provide you with the extra moral support you need, and likewise, you will appreciate the backing you can give others in your club and those competing alongside you. Mark my words, you will be pleased to discover that triathlon provides as much benefit socially and emotionally, as it does physically. Once you complete your first race you’ll find that this new and improved version of you is someone worth keeping around.    

In sum, the barriers to starting triathlon are real and challenging, but through careful self-examination, joining a training group, and picking a realistic goal alongside others in the sport, you will likely come to learn that you can become a triathlete. Welcome to the club! 

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist. Dr. Greene works with endurance athletes at every level of the sport, from first-timers to experienced professionals, including 2016 Olympic triathlete Joe Maloy. To reach Dr. Greene and for more information on his triathlon-related consulting services, visit greenepsych.com. 

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