The coping mechanisms of ultra triathletes

Clinical psychologist Dr. Matthew Tatum reveals the coping mechanisms involved in racing an ultra triathlon


We ask Dr. Matthew Tatum, a clinical psychologist who provides psychological coaching to triathletes, about the various motivations and coping mechanisms involved in ultra triathlon…

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220: Ultra triathlon generally involves covering huge distances over multiple laps. Does this repetition of the same scenario cause greater emotional stress in an athlete?

I’ve found that some individuals find courses with laps comforting as they feel they really get to know the course. They know how far it is to the next aid station, to the finish line, to their fans, etc.

Triathletes like this who are competing on an out-and-back or loop course tend to need coping skills that help them become very familiar with the course before race day. Others enjoy out-and-back or loop courses.

These individuals tend to take pleasure in new experiences and taking in the scenes along the way. For these people, laps can be monotonous and troubling.

When these individuals are competing on a course with loops they will need to work on coping skills that help them stay feeling fresh and engaged.

Dean Karnazes in Ultramarathon Man calls ultra running ‘his therapy’. But is there a danger that ultra triathlon can spiral into an unhealthy obsession?

I think there is an important difference between passion and obsession. Passionate individuals are flexible in their approach whereas obsessive individuals tend to be rigid.

When faced with an obstacle, passionate individuals are able to think creatively and find new solutions to their problem, while obsessive individuals have difficulty seeing alternatives. Ultimately, though, any distance of triathlon can spiral into an unhealthy obsession.

One way to explore this is to ask a triathlete their motivation for training and racing. An individual who is passionate will say things like: “I love to push myself to my limits because I believe it makes me a stronger person,” while an obsessed individual will say something like: “I have to train and race, I just have to”.

These individuals typically do not experience the joy and pleasure that passionate people experience in the process of training and racing. Their motivation comes from a much different place and the meaning of their training and racing lacks depth on an internal level.

In your experience, are there any particular traits displayed by individuals who undertake extreme challenges?

In my opinion triathletes, even those who take on the most extreme distances, are not comparable to individuals who undertake “extreme challenges” in the form of risk-taking behavior (e.g. cliff jumping, reckless driving).

People who are inclined to take on extremely risky challenges tend to be impulsive, emotionally labile [unstable], and often self-destructive. Triathletes tend to be thoughtful and intentional about their actions.

I do think there can be two kinds of people that pursue extreme challenges in triathlon: passionate individuals that are running towards something (e.g. a sense of wellbeing, personal growth etc.), and those who are running from something (e.g. attempting to avoid connecting with themselves or other people).

Take the individual who is wanting to better their PR as a means of pushing their limits in order to build perseverance, determination, and fortitude (running towards something) versus the individual who is focused only on beating the person next to him for the sake of competition and being the best (running from something).

The former have a healthy motivation and will be driven to better themselves, while the latter will have a distorted or obsessive motivation and they will lose themselves in the process.

Are there standard moods and emotions an individual will go through during such a challenge?

There are certainly a lot of ups and downs during an endurance event and the longer the event the more likely those ups and downs will become more frequent and extreme. The more prepared an individual is for the highs and lows that are inherent in endurance activities, the easier they’ll be able to cope with the different emotions they’ll experience.

Most, possibly all, triathletes will have an experience during a long training day or during a race that will test their mental endurance, be it a blister, cramps, hallucinations, vomiting, pessimism or fear. The emotions they experience will depend, in part, on their cognitive response to these obstacles.

If an individual with a cramp begins to think, “Great, my race is ruined! This sucks! I am never going to make my goal finish time”, this person may begin to experience disappointment, discouragement, anger, despair, fear, etc.

However, if an individual with cramps begins to think, “Okay, I have been through this before. I need to slow down/stretch/walk/meditate and everything is going to be fine. I’ll make up the time when I’m feeling better”, this person will problem-solve the obstacle they are faced with and may experience fulfillment, renewed vigor, increased confidence or a sense of accomplishment.

You can find more on Dr. Matthew Tatum at

(Image: Jonny Gawler)

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