Now in my third season as a triathlete, with an Ironman and three half irons under my belt, this blog is an opportunity to reflect on the factors that have allowed me to improve in my triathlon journey. Here are seven habits that have made me a better triathlete:
1) I give myself the sleep that I need and deserve. I am a big believer in getting 8hrs of sleep per night to allow my body and mind to restore themselves. Train hard, sleep “hard.” I know sleeping is a time that my body uses to recover and recharge. Physically, I believe during sleep my body repairs damaged tissues and flushes out toxins to make my body stronger and healthier. Mentally, sleep allows my brain to “reset” itself from the day’s workout and other stress factors, and prepare itself for the next day’s workout. I believe getting the sleep that my body needs has been a key element in preventing burnout too.
2) I foam roll and stretch. I admit I have a love-hate relationship with my foam roller. On one hand, using it is “unpleasant,” sometimes painful (hard to come up with the right words!). On the other hand, I know that without it other greater aches and pains will develop and inhibit my performance. For example, in 2013 I struggled with IT Band pain and foam rolling was the solution to help me eliminate the pain and keep it from coming back. I have made it a habit to foam roll for ~15 mins immediately after every bike and run workout. Because it feels like a chore, I don’t put it off until later in the day, else I am unlikely to do it. Besides, I find it most beneficial and “gentlest” when the muscles are warm after a workout. I firmly believe that if I didn’t foam roll, I would feel much stiffer and tighter. I also like to combine foam rolling with a few yoga stretches that don’t take me more than 10mins to go through.
3) I try to always eat and hydrate within 30mins of exercising, in order to recover from the last workout and begin preparing the body for the next workout. I am a big believer in this one. If I exercised all I wanted and as hard as I wanted but didn’t feed my body within the precious 30min window of time after the workout, much of the efforts would be in vain. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition – the fourth discipline of triathlons! Based on what I have read, a ratio of 4 grams of carbohydrate per gram of protein seems recommended post-workout (turns out Cliff bars have exactly this ratio). This habit does take a little bit of planning ahead, to ensure that no matter where I finish a workout, I have access to nutrition with 30mins. If I am home, however, I am a big fan of homemade smoothies!
4) I strength train. This habit is a common one for endurance triathletes to skip out when confronted with busy schedules and six other workouts per week. For me, a small amount of time dedicated to strength training — usually one or two 30min sessions per week right after swimming — brings me great benefits. I use this time to focus on my core and major muscle groups, without using heavy weights. These types of sessions are not meant to “grow” my muscles or bulk up. Rather, they serve a maintenance purpose, keep my core strong to support me on the swim/bike/run, and help me address muscle imbalances. I firmly believe strength training has been a key factor in keeping me largely injury-free during my three seasons of racing.
5) I train early in the day whenever possible. I think for most people it’s safe to say that the later we put off our workouts, the less likely they are to happen. “Stuff” gets in the way, we run behind on our To Do items, we feel tired, etc. While this habit may be simply said, in practice it it can be hard to execute. I’ll be the first to admit I am not a morning person (unless I am going fishing, or see point #1 above about liking my sleep!) For example, I struggle the most making it to the pool in the early morning before work. However, I took on triathlons because they challenge me in many ways, and having to get up early definitely challenges my discipline and mental fortitude. And besides, come 9am at work, it is a great feeling to know I have already accomplished a lot when other people’s day is just getting started.
6) I pick races that suit my strengths. As much time, effort, and money as I invest in triathlons, I want to make sure I set myself up to have the best possible races. This means picking courses where I can leverage my abilities and minimize my disadvantages. For the swim, the more difficult the better: choppy conditions or currents in bay and ocean swims would allow me to perform well against the competition. The bike is my weakest, in part because I am conservative going downhill, so big hill courses don’t suit me well. I enjoy rolling hills like Louisville and Raleigh and flat 56mi bike courses (though I don’t think I would enjoy 112mi flat), where I can go as fast as I want/can and still feel in control. My run is also strong and I can keep a steady pace in hot and humid conditions when others are slowing down, as was the case in Louisville in August (I also know I don’t race well overall in cold weather).
7) Last but not least, I take time to reflect and learn from past experiences. This is one of the reasons I write these blog posts about my triathlon journey. For example, I have found it very helpful to take time in days after a race to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what I would like to do differently next time. Last Fall I had my worst race at Waterman’s Sprint, but I learned several things about myself and racing that day that made me a better triathlete from that point forward. A failure is only a failure if you don’t learn anything from it!
I hope you can associate with some of these habits and that you have or will find them helpful in making you a better triathlete. Cheers!