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The Hurry to Go Long

Coach Mat O'Halloran small

Arguably the hardest one-day event most civilians can enter out of their own free will, triathlon has compelled a lot of over-commitments. The sport is very attractive due to a wide variety of choices in format, distance, and location. Logically, triathletes should follow the process by gradually moving up distances as they sharpen their abilities, increase their knowledge, and build their fitness.

Such logic, however, is not popular with new triathletes anymore. In this modern era where almost anything is accessible within your fingertips, a lot of people have become very impatient—even in sports. The ambition, peer pressure and idealistic mainstream media are luring triathletes to bite much more than they can chew. The reality is that triathlon has had some ‘victims,’ whose challenges are caused by being their own worst enemies.

As a coach, it is becoming difficult to deal with beginner triathletes who aim for the stars during their first few seasons in the sport. It gives me flashbacks of my younger self: an athlete whose impatience to achieve made me fall short of my potential as a professional. I did my first Ironman race at the tender age of 21, after almost eight years in the sport. I was young, but not inexperienced. The major problem arose when I nailed that first Ironman, making me believe that it was not all that hard and that I had paid my dues—my natural ability allowed me to temporarily get away with it.

The reality was that I still had not mastered short and middle distances. In the end, I ignored the sensible advice of my coach to HURRY SLOWLY, and simply ran into a brick wall of reality.

The Problem
There are a few reasons why age groupers want to go long sooner than later. They most likely started the sport late, where they feel they are on borrowed time. They might be surrounded by peers with similar abilities but far more experience, who they can match in workouts. They might want to do the longer distance slowly first and foremost, then try to do it a bit faster down the road. Older athletes might feel they lack speed and are better suited for long and slow efforts. Others may come from a different sporting background, which makes them believe they can take shortcuts.

The Risks Involved
Beyond the obvious risk of physical injuries, the invisible stress on the immune system brought about by a lack of proper buildup can cause big problems down the road. While general aerobic conditioning is great for the body, overdoing it too soon and too quickly might actually be worse than not exercising at all. The potential long-term damage caused by excess fatigue and extended efforts will cause the body’s testosterone levels to drop and cortisol levels to rise. It can leave lingering sensations of lethargy, soreness and irritability. These may start to affect not just yourself but also your loved ones, peers, and even your professional life.

Mentally, failing to achieve expectations—no matter how realistic or simple—can cause depression in even the strongest mortal, and infiltrate one’s personal life. Needless to say, for those who don’t have it naturally, building mental fortitude must also be done slowly and surely. Start by setting small objectives and work on achieving them one after another, over time, in a progressive manner.

How to Know When You’re Ready to Move Up Distances

1. Consistency
During preparation and competition, the ability to execute and pace your efforts during short or middle distances is needed to translate into long distances. Often, during shorter events, certain discrepancies may seem less prominent, only to be amplified during longer distances. Being able to complete the given individual distances per discipline is important. But the ability to cope with fatigue and accumulated strain, which don’t
always manifest during workouts, is far more important.

2. Versatility
Versatility is a crucial trait to master, as race day circumstances can vary immensely—from the weather to the race course or depth of the field. The event we choose to compete in will have an impact on our evolution and education as athletes. A slower result over more difficult short/middle distance events is a better indicator of our progress and preparedness to move up to long distances, compared with doing less challenging and quicker short/middle distance events, even if the result is faster.

3. Longevity
It’s often the key to getting the best out of ourselves in sport, as it can take years to apply properly. Physiological longevity comes first and it needs to support the physical side. Sometimes, it means being able to do a few seasons without any major low points; other times, it’s about being able to overcome a series of setbacks and press on with the same enthusiasm that we started with. Failing to do so is a clear indication of the need to keep practicing and grinding before taking on a new challenge.

Extend the Speed Through Endurance, Instead of Lifting the Speed of the Endurance!
One never really knows the extent of one’s capabilities until he/she actually does the long distance. Plenty of time is needed to develop the strength, endurance and mental fortitude to complete a long distance race at best aerobic effort.

Having said that, for some athletes, starting with longer distances, then trying to increase the speed over time gives a quicker sense of accomplishment and a clear quantifiable measure. However, it comes with a more challenging and longer term objective to try to go faster, when the body has already been trained to go slow and steady.

Majority of the top endurance triathletes, swimmers, cyclists, or runners in the world actually started out with shorter to middle distances. They got the best out of themselves in terms of speed and intensity before moving towards longer distances. It makes sense to “earn your stripes” one distance at a time, prior to moving up.

Plan Your Career – Not Just Your Season!
With enough planning, most goals can be achieved. On the flip side, rushing through the process can make the simplest of tasks very tedious. With the guidance of a coach or experienced peers, set benchmarks for both process and outcome. Work towards them, through them and past them. It might mean waiting a bit longer to move up to the longer distances, temporarily taking a step back or watching others rush by you. We may never know what our full capacities are, but by respecting the process, we will get closer to knowing.

When all’s said and done, our PRs, placings, or which race we qualified for are all subject to circumstance. Respecting the process might be the only reliable and controllable aspect of careers. Regardless of level and natural abilities, the inner sense of accomplishment might be the greatest reward of competing in this crazy sport.

Our final destination is not the end-all and be-all triumph, but rather how far we have come from our point of origin. Starting with control, being patient, and finishing strong is the surest approach to going as far as possible, not just in sports, but also in life!


Mathieu was a former resident athlete at the National Canadian Triathlon Training Center, after which he worked on a drilling rig near 60th parallel North to jumpstart his travels around the world. After a few years racing hand to mouth as a pro in Asia, he settled in the beautiful Philippines. These days, he coaches full time, tries to keep fit, and spends more time on his computer than he should.

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