Re-Discovering the Spirit of Triathlon


Train safe. Train smart. If you are a triathlete, then you’re probably familiar with these phrases. They usually appear at the sign off of a magazine editorial or race director’s note and have even been seen on advertisements for coaching services.

And while these phrases offer sage advice, they carry a somewhat clinical and cautious tone.

It’s not that training safe and training smart aren’t important – it’s just that they don’t capture the spirit of a sport that is rooted in adventure and the exploration of personal limits.

My guess is that there were few fitness experts (probably none) who would have endorsed the inaugural Ironman as being either safe or smart (or sane for that matter). Yet without the bold, adventurous spirit of those participating in the early years of this event, the multi-sport movement would probably not exist today. So how did we get so concerned with training safe and training smart?

As the sport became more popular, it evolved. It is no longer a “fringe” endeavor, attracting only those individuals seeking adventure, but a relatively mainstream sport, attracting individuals who tend to be driven and goal oriented. Not that this is a bad thing, but it is in this evolution that some of the spirit of adventure has been lost. At every level, races have become more competitive and simply finishing is no longer the goal for most. Athletes looking for any edge on the competition are turning to training programs that prescribe just the right number of workouts, at just the right intensity, with just the right amount of rest. Not to mention the seemingly endless search for alternative ways to improve performance, through massage, stretching, the latest equipment and the right nutrition.

There’s a story that circulated back in the 80’s about a chance meeting between triathlon legends Dave Scott and Scott Tinley a couple weeks before Ironman. They had run into each other at a track, each looking for a leg sharpening speed workout as they began final preparations for the race. What unfolded was a leg draining head-to-head battle in the form of endless 400 meter repeats, with each trying to get to the line ahead of the other. As the story goes, both Scott and Tinley agreed that the session, while probably not the best preparation for the upcoming race, went down as one of the most memorable and purely enjoyable workouts they had ever done. It defined the way they approached the sport and lived their lives. Admittedly, this is not a recommended workout to include in a pre-race taper, but here’s the point: While it is good to prepare according to a plan, it is also worthwhile to depart from this plan for the sake of pure fun and variety and the chance to explore personal limits when the opportunity presents itself. And since most of us are not pro athletes and are forced to fit training around the rest of our lives, the opportunity presents itself frequently.

No time to run during the day? Get a headlamp or a flashlight and try a trail run at night. Or do the same using a mountain bike. Need an interval workout on the bike? Join the local cycling group’s “A” ride and hit speeds that you likely wouldn’t see even during short intervals. Looking to make that long brick workout a little more interesting? Plan a trip to the mountains for a ride amidst the spectacular scenery, then hike (or jog) a few hours along a rugged trail like the Appalachian Trail in the East or the Leadville Trail out West. It is often the unplanned and unique adventures that give us the best stories and experiences. So go ahead, train smart. And train safe. But remember, this is triathlon.

We have a heritage of adventure and exploration to uphold. And while smarter and more scientific training programs are a positive part of the sport’s evolution, don’t resist the temptation to pursue unplanned, irrational training opportunities from time to time. It is in these adventures that the spirit of the sport can be found.