I think training for a triathlon (or equivalent) readies you to live long and prosper. But my claim is not based on the reasons that you think.
The easy part of this argument is old; it comes from a 1993 study of the lifespan of athletes in Olympic sports (American Football is not an Olympic sport, FYI). Athletes who do these disciplines can expect a 5-year average addition to their time on Earth. That should be enough of an argument to end the conversation right there. Do athletics with great fervor and you live longer. We are done, right?
I want to go a bit deeper into the underlying psychology in sport, specifically how sports get us out of a mode called hyper-preparation. I will use an argument I heard from a clinical psychologist. I will add a biblical perspective that is a couple thousand years old as well.
Jordan Peterson shares that hyper-preparation shortens our life span from both a chemical and a metabolic perspective. As a culture, we have been teaching our generation and the next that success has a necessary element of planning for the unexpected at all ends of the spectrum, such that when those events occur, you will be ready for it.
What is not mentioned in this damaging lesson is that the act of engaging your mind in worst case scenarios and highly unlikely disasters causes cortisol levels to rise. High levels of cortisol spell disaster for long term health. What is wrong with high cortisol levels?
Cortisol can be thought of as a natural steroid that the body releases to help us with potential risk or perceived risk; but when it is released, there are also side effects that harm us. It is meant to be a “once in a while” agent to make sugar from non-sugar sources during fight and flight decision making moments. However, it also suppresses the immune system, and it suppresses natural inflammation. It shuts down our ability to fight disease as well as heal from disease.
Once in a while, these sorts of cortisol releasing events like being chased by a dog or getting in a car accident are normal, and their impact on long term health appears to be undetectable or at least not studied. However, when we contemplate situations that include either perceived or potential risk, our background levels of cortisol go up, and they stay up. “What am I going to do if…” thinking raises those levels.
People with high levels of cortisol don’t live as long as people with normal levels of steroids. That act of “preparing for the unexpected,” even when the unexpected doesn’t manifest itself in reality shrinks your time on earth. For some of you, this is intuitive: over planning an event can kill you just like the event itself.
Last piece of evidence, and this is stand alone in its credibility, is that God repeated shared this with us thousands of years ago, literally a hundred times. He says, “do not worry.” Matthew 6:27 says what science is only now discovering via their exploration of hyper-preparation and its impact on background cortisol levels.
Who among you add a single hour to your life with all your worries?
We have to do some planning, so we need a balance. What is the balance, and how do we achieve it? I think the act of living within the confines of a day is a skill that must be taught and experienced with your discipline, and triathlon teaches us to live day to day better than many sports.
To begin, in triathlon, you are your own greatest competitor. There are no films of your competitors to watch that will alter your race day execution. That is a gift, but it also requires that more of your motivation be internal. Few sports can make that claim.
Psychology has shown us that motivation helps you establish goals. But motivation does not and will not keep you on track. Emotions keep you on track. Positive emotions move you forwards towards desired goals while negative emotions can cause you to stop or even move backwards. The obvious examples that are the most studied include dieting and child behavior modification. However, it most certainly applies to triathlon.
With my athletes, I work with them to create a long-term plan, chock full of motivation that I extract from their story. However, if they are not interested in prioritizing the creation of that plan, then no amount of emotion or motivation is going to get them their desired outcomes. Sometimes, I pass on working with an athlete if they can’t figure out how to prioritize this first step.
With a plan in place, we are taught that we cannot alter how we did with yesterday’s workout, but we can give today’s workout our full attention. We also learn that tomorrow’s workout should be addressed tomorrow, with our best preparation doing things that lower cortisol. What can we do to lower cortisol to normal levels? We get to bed on time. We eat healthy foods. We sleep in a colder environment.
We also live within our days better than most athletes. We do our things with metrics in mind that we can measure. We measure times and distances and effort levels to gauge our workout effectiveness, and we learn how to measure the cumulative effect on our fitness and health. If you have to work with other athletes on a team sport, the effectiveness of the workout varies from athlete to athlete, and it is much more difficult for a coach to modify the entire workout to get the most from everyone. With triathlon, all workouts are custom for the athlete’s benefit.
Can’t create the plan? That doesn’t mean you are lazy. It means you need some motivation, and not all motivation is internal. External motivation from coaches is often critical in the life of a successful athlete. I use Training Peaks, but paper and pen work, as do excel spreadsheets. The goal is to stay in the day as much as you can, with each workout and each subset of the plan containing greater levels of detail.
We get great practice staying in plan with managing our cortisol with our routines. Race day for me means laying out my clothing the night before, as well as packing up all things I will need on race day. Race morning means simple nutrition and hydration, a trip to the race venue to setup my stuff, some warmup, then a trip the starting line. Mid race is all about metrics-effort and intensity are all the that I measure, as I can’t make any improvements on speeds or times on race day. Post-race is all about social times and recovery. I talk with friends, get some calories in me and stretch my body down to minimize “post-race ouch syndrome.”
We exercise really hard. We don’t do “I walked 10,000 steps and I’m now a Rockstar,” thinking. We are structured and methodological. It keeps us in the moment when we go to Threshold and stay there.
Threshold Academy is about getting you to Threshold and teaching you to stay there. It will keep you in the moment and keep you healthy. Living a long time is only one of the benefits.