If I had any idea of just how hard this sport is and the fragile, hand-to-mouth nature of an athletic career, I would have done the sensible thing and found myself a real job. I am joking, but only barely—it constantly amazes me to look back on my naïveté when I made the decision to become a professional triathlete. First off, I wasn’t a terribly good athlete. Winning a few local races does not qualify one to quit one’s job and move across the country to become a “pro triathlete.” It would have been a less-than-sound financial decision except at that time, fortunately, I didn’t have a job. I had recently finished college—so recently, in fact, that I actually skipped my graduation ceremony to head to a World Cup (where I promptly had my ass handed to me, but it was too late; I was committed). And so I was unfamiliar with the world of luxuries I was passing up such as owning a car and health insurance. Led by an (over-)confidence in my abilities and that brand of unfailing self-belief particular to 20-year-olds, I trusted that hard work would result in, well, results. I had no experience with the uncertainties of the sport—the injuries and illnesses, the fickle nature of draft-legal racing, the pressure that accompanies a reliance on performance in order to pay the bills. I didn’t know any better, so I had no idea the risk I was taking with my life. But such is the nature of risk; the very real possibility of failure is overshadowed by the slight but tantalizing possibility of doing something big. So I am thankful no one told me what I know now. (I’m sure many people tried along the way, but I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway.)
That said, a number of things would have made the road a little easier—the tricks of the trade that take many years and painful lessons to accrue. I polled a few professional triathletes about the things they wish they had learned early in their careers and came up with this top-10 list:
1. Don’t wear underwear under your bike shorts.
2. Race in a bikini/skirt/outrageous outfit when you’re young. Don’t beat yourself up about your body. You will never look as good as you do at 22. You’ll look back one day and wonder what on earth you were worried about.
3. If you don’t sleep enough, you get sick. If you overtrain, you get sick. Rest and recovery is as important as any workout. When you are training and working and studying and living life, something has to give.
4. Don’t expect to be a “normal” person. You can’t party all night and still train hard. You are not a loser for going home early on a Friday. The people who go out every night then sleep through a workout now will tell you in 10 years that they wish they had done what you did and had the self-discipline you had. Then you get to be the cool kid.
5. Learn how to draft in the swim. It saves time and, more importantly, valuable energy for a weaker swimmer. Drafting is illegal otherwise, but it equates to free speed in the swim and is a good technique to learn early.
6. You can gain fitness in any of the three sports. If you have an injury that prevents you from running, don’t keep trying to push through or constantly test it; just use the opportunity to improve in other areas. Your bike and swim fitness can translate to your run.
7. Buy new running shoes regularly. Don’t try to eke out a few extra months in worn-down shoes. Also make sure they fit properly—black toenails are not a badge of honor; they are simply the mark of someone who bought their shoes too small.
8. Make hay while the sun shines. Race when you feel like it, even if you’re not 100 percent fit. Don’t spend months grinding yourself into the ground training for one event—the best way to prepare to race is by racing. There will be times when you can’t race due to injury or schedule, but take every opportunity to get on the start line and learn something.
9. Be open to learning from more experienced athletes and coaches. We all think we know better (especially at 20), but plenty of triathletes who have come before you have already made all the mistakes so that you don’t have to. Watch, listen and learn.
10. Wear sunscreen. Always.