ironman lesson for life | the bookish athlete

When you commit to training for an endurance event, like an Ironman, you find a way to keep going. When you’re tired, you keep going. When you’re bored, you keep going. When you don’t want to keep going, you keep going.

Training even when you don’t want to creates more than a consistent workout habit. You have the opportunity to learn a few lessons about training, yourself, and life.

endurance life lessons

1. commit to your plan — not someone else’s.

Several years ago, I wrote my own Ironman training plan with long, aerobic workouts making up the bulk of the program. As I trained, I was tempted to change things up because I heard or read what other coaches and athletes were doing with their training. I would get nervous and question everything. Should I be something different? Is this going to prepare me?

I was so tempted to change things up. But no matter what I saw on someone’s Instagram feed or blog, I stayed committed to my plan.

On race day, I felt prepared. I had stuck to my plan and kept my training consistent. Anything else wouldn’t have prepared me for my own race, and it would’ve been for someone else.

2. play to your strengths, but work on your weaknesses.

Ironman is like 99% biking.

Okay, not really. But it might as well be. I’d love Ironman to be 99% swimming. But then it wouldn’t be Ironman.

Biking and I don’t get along. Before I started Ironman training, I hated the bike. Why? Because it wasn’t hate. It was fear. I was afraid to ride a bike.

I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I got to college. I had an old Schwinn that my dad gave me right before I left for college. That bike was terrifying. It weighed about 50 pounds. To shift, I had to let go of the handlebars to get to the shifters on the down tube. I was scared to let go, so I rode in the same gear all the time. It didn’t matter if I was going uphill or down; I stayed in the same gear.

And yet, I found myself several years later signed up for an Ironman. The day I called my dad to let him know I was even doing triathlons, he said, “You know there’s biking in that, right?”

It was time to get serious about confronting my weakness and spend some quality time on the bike. So on Saturday mornings, I’d stare longingly at my swimsuit and goggles while I packed up my helmet, cycling shoes, and bike. Oh, the bike.

At Coeur d’Alene, I was one of the first people out of the water. And then everyone started passing me on the bike — hundreds of people.

Even still, the bike was the most successful part of my whole race. I rode 112 miles without falling off my bike, successfully changed gears (I had traded in the Schwinn for an updated road bike with shifters next to the brakes.), and stayed on top of my nutrition. And afterward, I ran my second fastest marathon time ever. That would not have happened if I hadn’t worked on my weakness.

3. you can’t prevent problems, so practice finding good solutions.

I’m a perfectionist, and I love being in control. I like it when things work the way they’re supposed to, and everything goes according to plan. I also know that maintaining this illusion of perfection and control is unrealistic.

When you spend 15 hours each week training, something unexpected is bound to happen. Something beyond my control and guaranteed to mess with my perfect plan. Something like getting a flat tire during a long ride, realizing I forgot to pack a tube and getting stranded 50 miles from home.

Ironman teaches you to deal with problems and focus on finding a solution. Trying to prevent a problem or freaking out when something happens wastes energy. But if you get some practice encountering a problem while training and figuring out what to do about it, your race day will go more smoothly.

I’m not saying that race day will be free from all problems. But you’ll be much more prepared to handle whatever happens because you will have built the confidence to figure things out.

4. build confidence with uncomfortable transitions.

Swimming, biking, and running build endurance. But you also learn how to make transitions.

The bike to run transition in a triathlon is a weird feeling. You rack your bike in the transition area, pull on your shoes, and head out for the run. But when you take those first few steps, you find yourself looking down to make sure your legs are still attached to your body.

If you’ve done a triathlon of any distance, you know about that feeling. And you also know that starting the run can create some doubt. How on Earth am I going to be able to run right now if I can’t even feel my legs?

The best way to deal with this discomfort is practice. During training, I planned brick workouts (a bike ride immediately followed by a run) with longer bike-runs on the weekends, and short transition runs after my weekday trainer rides. Practicing going from one sport to the next did a lot for my confidence during the race.

Transitions are the gray area of triathlon. The swim is over, but you haven’t started the bike. Or your bike is back on the rack, but you haven’t started the run. You’re in the middle. Even when you start moving, things might feel uncomfortable at first. (There is nothing comfortable about telling your legs they’ll be running a marathon after being on the bike for 112 miles.) But being comfortable in that gray transition area helps you work through discomfort and develop confidence.

5. when you feel like quitting, remember why you started.

Training for an Ironman was like taking on a second full-time job. By the 15th or 16th week of Saturday long rides, I was over it. I never wanted to see my bike again, let alone ride the thing.

And then I reminded myself why I was doing the race.

I was going after the unknown. Would I even be able to do this? I wanted to experience an Ironman for everything it was. And that meant I needed to prepare myself.

I couldn’t do this race from the comfort of my bed. Come race day, I didn’t want to feel like I had somehow cheated myself. I didn’t want to wonder how my race might have been different if I had done more.

There were many days when I had my bike loaded up in the car to stop for a bike ride on my way home from work. As tempted as I was to bypass the exit for that ride and drive straight home to the couch, I had my why.

Any time my motivation dropped, I brought it back to my why. The why is what can keep you charging ahead, even when you’d rather take a nap.

never stop learning

Looking back through this list of lessons, I can see how it applies to things that have nothing to do with triathlon. I have to remind myself that the metaphor of endurance training really does play out in my life. These aren’t just good lessons. When put into practice, they actually do some good.

Commit to what I want to do and how I want to do it. Recognize where I’m strong, but don’t back away from improvement. Work through problems and uncomfortable transitions. Remember why it all matters.

And always, keep going.

Are you ready to take on a new challenge and learn some lessons along the way? Send me a message about your goals and how coaching might help you reach them.