Why do we feel the need to go long in triathlon?

Multisport and performance lifestyle coach Joel Enoch looks at why we choose the distances and events we race and questions why we might feel the need to ‘go long’

PALMA DE MALLORCA, SPAIN - MAY 07: Athletes competes during the IRONMAN 70.3 Mallorca on May 07, 2022 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

Can you remember the feeling of the first time you took part in a triathlon? Pause for a moment and take yourself back to that experience. What did you feel, how did you see the sport and other competitors differntly, what motivated and scared you, how did you feel about the distance that awaited you and what was it like to finish?

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My first event was the 2005 British University Sport Association Championships in Calne, Wiltshire, a race dominated by one Will Clarke (the following year he and his sister Rosie would both win with future Olympic medallist Vicky Holland in third).

Despite it being my first race, I was well aware of the triathlon royalty around me; Elliot Chaullifour, Vanessa Raw, Mark Bruce and Helen Lawrence were all big names at the time (one Emma Pooley also set the fastest bike split – a sign of things to come!). I felt small in their company and in anticipation of the challenge that lay ahead.

Back then, 20min runs still seemed longer than anyone reasonably needed to run for, and to me, spending more than 20km cycling was a feat of physical achievement so great that it should be noted in the annals of sporting history.

I got into the sport late and had been a track sprinter in the years before – a world where more than 45 seconds of exercise is frowned upon and where 3-4 reps on a 1:6 work rest interval would be deemed a tough session!

In this context, the prospect of a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5k run without a break felt, well… intimidatingly epic! My 14min swim, 42min bike and 22min run felt like a huge achievement and I remember hurting for days, unable to fathom how 108 of the 166 people competing could have completed the challenge more quickly than me?

Improvement at sprint distance became the aim over the coming years and I returned to Clane three more times, improving my result each time and finishing 20th out of 235 in 2008. But then the motivation changed.

Why and when does our motivation to race longer change? 

If you started in tri with a shorter distance, I wonder when you first felt the need to go further and what created that pressure?

By 2009, my ambition to improve was morphing. Instead of ‘how much can I improve’, success felt associated with going further, not faster. Sprint led to standard distance, British Super Series starts and world and European age-group champs, but despite this level of competition being a significant personal achievement, it didn’t seem enough for other people.

‘Oh you do triathlon’, people would say, followed quickly by ‘have you done an Ironman?’ I began to feel like nothing I was achieving was worth anything if I didn’t sign up to a long-course race, so by 2010 I’d done just that. I didn’t want to, but i got the sense from other people that I was only a real triathlete if I did what I have often seen described as a ‘full-course’ race – as if anything shorter is not a proper triathlon.

How does this experience resonate with you? Have you felt the same pressure too? The following questions might be worth asking:

1) What do you feel your triathlon goal should be?

2) What about triathlon brings you joy?

Take time to think and then see how aligned your two answers are. As a coach, I’ve often observed athletes picking goals based on an almost subconscious pressure to go longer, when in fact they find participating in triathlon gives them pleasure though a sense of community, growth or health; all things that can be fulfilled in shorter events.

Why longer doesn’t necessarily equal better

Too often I’ve seen people choose a path that leads them away from what they love about the sport because of the broken concept that longer equals better; a concept that might be partly driven by large race organisers’ ability to financially control what events pop up on advertising banners on our PC screens.

As one coach said to me, “Your local club race doesn’t have the same social media advertising budget as Ironman”. Food for thought!

So how can you keep yourself in tune with your personal motivations? Here are some more questions for you to consider in the context of your sport:

  • Be careful of ‘should’ and ‘need’, they are usually a tell-tale sign you’re trying to convince yourself to do something you don’t want to. Ask, ‘will this make me better or bring me joy?’ If the answer to both isn’t ‘yes’, do something else that ticks the boxes.
  • Where do my ‘should’ and ‘need’ feelings come from? If they’re external pressures, check them against the things that you find important.
  • What do you find important and why?
  • What don’t you like and why?

Choose a distance and event that brings you joy

Your answers should give you an idea of what challenges and race distances fit with who you are. In addition to not being as fulfilling, my discovery was that long-course racing might even be destructive to the things I value.

I want to stay fast and enjoy good mental health, but my foray into Ironman simply stalled my 5km time to an all-time low, I was unhappy at never feeling like I was doing enough, and have never enjoyed triathlon less (I actually took a year to mentally rebound).

In addition, it not only highlighted that shorter races suit me more, but also that even three sports was too much. An honest assessment was that I am happier working on two things, and three tends to stretch me too far – so now I only focus on two sports at a time. I feel liberated as a result and have performed my best in all three since taking that step, just not all at the same time.

My experience will be different to yours. This article is written to offer another point of view, to test your decisions, help equip you to make the better ones and enable you to derive as much satisfaction from your sporting life and achievements as possible.

At a large international competition in 2016 I was chatting to an athlete who explained that he was taking part in as many events as possible that weekend while also training for an upcoming 70.3 and Ironman event.

“I don’t know why anyone would do sprint distance,” he said. “If you’re not doing as much as possible, you’re not doing enough.” I explained how my racing choice was aligned to my values and what brought me joy. “That’s interesting,” he replied. “I’ve not thought about it like that before.”

I wonder what he might have been doing if he had – and if he might have been happier?

Top image: Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

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