Ironman Refugees

By | June 26, 2022

For most triathletes out there, their journey to Ironman distance racing is an evolutionary process that begins with sprint triathlon. There are exceptions, and most likely quite a few, who simply start their triathlon age group career with an Ironman distance race. However, these individuals are usually in the minority. The development of a typical triathlete goes something like this.

Stage 1: Sprint Triathlete:

I wanted to get in shape so I decided to compete in a sprint triathlon to lose some weight and motivate myself to exercise and be healthier. These individuals typically need some exercise and will benefit greatly from their training, coaching and time spent on the bike, by the pool and on the trails/road runs. They usually feel very vulnerable and feel like a fish out of water in multiple triathlons, but they quickly become familiar with the transitions, pacing strategies, and overall triathlon culture within a few years of the race.

Level 2: Olympic/70.3 or Half Ironman Triathlete:

If a little is okay, then a little more is better. At least that’s how belief goes. Depending on the goal, this can especially apply to runners on the Olympic distance. Well, that’s the operative word “goals.” The triathlete’s goals tend to shift from wanting to be healthy and in decent shape to wanting to see where you stand compared to your peers. This may not always be the case as there are some extremely competitive sprint triathletes. However, the bias in the triathlon/endurance community is “longer is better” when it comes to training and racing.

At this point you will find that individuals are spending more and more money on coaching, road bikes, bicycles, wetsuits and so on. Now the goal has definitely changed from just being healthy to being competitive in his age group. The initial goal of being healthy suddenly recedes into the background of age group classification. As a result, strength training is mostly neglected for more time on the bike/pool/road etc. NSAIDs are increasingly being used to speed recovery from overuse injuries.

Training regiments are becoming more demanding. The diet focuses more on weight loss than healthy eating. As a result, the triathlete begins to trade health for speed. Fitness increases in any given sport, but overall health deteriorates due to overtraining, poor diet, muscle wasting, excessive fatigue, less time with family/loved ones, and so on. Of course, this is a continuum and may or may not occur depending on physical characteristics, age, life situation (children), etc. However, for your typical 30-40 year old grouper, this is usually the case.

Stage 3: Ironman triathlete:

The Ironman triathlete has covered the distance and has possibly done so a number of times. This is typically 3-5 years along the evolutionary process to become an Ironman. Again, there are those who simply complete an Ironman in their first year. However, I emphasize the word complete. I doubt they race Ironman as much as they try to survive it. Complete the Ironman is the optimal word here. They just want to get through, even if it means walking most of the run. For those who are competitive agegroupers, you’ve put a lot of time and sacrifice into this event now. The goals have now shifted completely to placement and health has clearly taken a back seat.

If strength training is not regularly scheduled, osteoporosis becomes a real problem for men and women between 30 and 40 years old who lose a significant amount of muscle mass also due to aging but also due to weight loss and lack of weight bearing. Overuse injuries and NSAID use are commonplace, along with a very regimented and unspontaneous lifestyle, as life is now about training and not training for life. Burnout is now high. There are those who are capable of compulsively completing Ironman race after Ironman race, year after year. However, I am talking about terms and conditions. For most, the feeling becomes very much a “You’ve already done that.”

This is very unfortunate as the athlete has achieved a lot by proving to himself and others that he can “go the distance”. However, their original goal of health has been lost along the way. These athletes often find themselves with chronic injuries, poor bone health, loss of muscle mass, strained relationships at home and at work, and potential negative side effects from over NSAID use. Most don’t even know the state of their bodies, but they do know they’re feeling burned out and need a break.

Stage 4: Triathlon Refugee:

This is the point where you reach a fork in the road. There are two directions one will choose at this point, and both can profoundly affect that person’s future health. One direction taken is to take a break and return to Ironman distance racing. Most often, these athletes are pure endurance machines. They are made for endurance sports and have the psychological makeup and support system to tolerate their lifestyle. Cheers to you if you’re one of those people.

Then we have the triathlon escapee. This is the person who took things as far as they could. Pushing their health, their personal lives and their own abilities to the limit, they decided enough was enough and all quit together. They’re breaking away from triathlon over the Ironman distance, but they’re also throwing the baby out with the bathwater and breaking away from their original goal of being healthy. This has been lost on the way to becoming a competitive agegrouper at the Ironman distance. You are a refugee, so to speak. Feeling like they can’t go back to the shorter sprint triathlons and are tired of competing in the Ironman distances.

I believe it’s these athletes who need rescuing the most. I feel that in many ways they are at risk of being isolated and banned from the sport and that is very unfortunate. There has to be a place they can go. There must be a goal as honorable as Ironman, but without the pain and sacrifice. The answer lies in these individuals realizing that they have lost their original goal that got them into triathlon in the first place. Be healthy, look good and feel good. If you can check your ego at the door, sit back, and recognize what motivated you to change your health in the first place, then you’ve taken a big step in finding the drive to get healthy and in shape again stay.

That doesn’t mean you have to go back and do an Ironman distance race. You have the right to be proud of your achievement. However, you also have the right to exercise and be healthy without the pressure of competition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with training for a triathlon but never competing in one. Think about the distance that best suits your needs and that you feel most comfortable with in terms of training, time commitment and health. Make sure to do strength training 2-3 times a week, even if it slows you down. You will be healthier and happier in the long run.

If you want to take it a step further, just pick the three sports you love the most and train in those areas. For me that would be 100 meter sprints, long distance cycling and strength training. For others it could mean skiing, swimming and soccer or mountain biking. Create your own sports that motivate you the most and train for them. Not everyone is cut out to swim/bike/run long distances. However, anyone can be healthier and more motivated by challenging themselves within their own ability.

Thanks to Pete Simon | #Ironman #Refugees

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