But What If? Overcoming Fear of Triathlon

By Will Murray

Will Murray

But What If? Overcoming Fear of Triathlon

By Will Murray

You don’t have to be super-human to complete a triathlon. That is despite the popular notion. Many people could become triathletes if they could get past their fear of just giving triathlon a try. Let’s clear up the misconceptions and get you started.

I can’t (fill in the blank: swim, bike, run). 

Truth: there are very few true three-sport athletes who are equally proficient at the swim, the bike and the run. Almost everyone has one discipline that isn’t their favorite, because it isn’t their strongest. So, during the race it evens out. Solid in one discipline, a little less in another. Most of us are in that situation. Some say, train to your weakness, but race to your strength. If you don’t yet know how to swim well, this is your chance to learn a new sport while keeping up with your cycling or running. Who knows? You might really learn to love it. Here’s a mental skill exercise for learning how to do that. And, there are other multisport events in addition to triathlon: duathlons have a run-bike-run format, and aquabikes a swim-bike format. 

I might not finish.

Well, you might not. And what happens if you don’t? Here’s a good test: 

  1. Place yourself in the future, the day after your imaginary first race, as if you are really there. 
  2. What do you want to be able to say to yourself? “I tried, and wasn’t able to finish?” Or, “I gave up before I started?” 
  3. Which one feels better, and which feels worse? Now you have your decision.

Some athletes say a DNF (Did Not Finish) is a shame but a DNS (Did Not Start) is a crime. Or, as is often attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” 

And the good news is, there are a lot of short races: sprint-distance triathlons often have a swim of 750 meters, a bike leg of 20 kilometers and a run leg of 5 kilometers. Sprint triathlons are a great way to test out the sport. There are also two-discipline sports to try like duathlon is running, aquabike and aquathlon. So there is some multisport format that you can try to suit your aims and see how you like it.

And fortunately there is a really effective technique for learning to love your (presently) least favorite discipline. 

I’m afraid of swimming in open water with all those other people.

Yes, at some times in the race the swim course can get a bit crowded, especially at the start and at the turns, where swimmers can bunch up going around the buoy. And yes, sometimes swimmers bump into each other. They tap the feet of the swimmer in front of them or rub hips. It can happen. Nobody means it — it’s by accident, such as when someone accidentally bumps you on the sidewalk or in an elevator. All these athletes just want to swim, but sometimes they get in one another’s way a little bit. Try this:

  1. Imagine you are in an elevator and bump gently into the person next to you. See and hear yourself apologizing and then carrying on as usual.
  2. Now imagine that you gently tap the feet of a swimmer in front of you, accidentally. See and hear yourself apologizing (even though the other swimmer can’t hear you) and continuing your swim.

Practicing open water swims is a great way to get the feel for big water. You can also practice in the pool with willing partners: swim closely side by side, then line up on the feet in front of you, and finally, do a few hip bumps to see how it feels. Recently I witnessed three professional triathletes swimming side-by-side-by-side, yes indeed three across, for many laps. That’s how they gain comfort and skill swimming in a group.

I don’t look like a triathlete.

Triathletes come in all shapes and sizes. And, as they say when you attend a wedding, “You are not the bride, so nobody is looking at you.” Triathletes are among the most encouraging, the most friendly, the most attagirl people on the planet. They are just glad you are there and will give you a lot of love. Being out there gets you points from the other athletes. These points are waiting for you. Come get them. But one other thing — people are looking at you. Spectators, volunteers and your colleagues in the race: they see you. And when they see you, they see someone out there in the race, and they see you looking awesome.

I don’t have a fancy bike.

And you probably don’t need one. At the Colorado Triathlon on June 3, 2017, as I course marshalled the corner at Neva Road and Highway 36 in Boulder, I saw every kind of athlete on every kind of bike — mountain bikes, cross bikes, road bikes, time trial bikes, bikes with tassels on the grips — you name it. Does your bike have wheels and pedals? Great. You are all set. And no matter your bike, see the paragraph above. 

Don’t have any regrets. If you are thinking about triathlon, think about just giving it a chance. Some day in the future, you will look back at this time when you considered doing a triathlon. Do you want to say to yourself, “I gave it a shot.” Or do you want to hold regrets, “Hmm, I wonder what would have happened if I had just done a triathlon?”

“Would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said ‘What if I sink on the way over? What if I meet pirates? What if I never come back?’ He wouldn’t even have started.” Roald Dahl, The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr Willie Wonka p 215-216.

About the Author

Will Murray

Will Murray is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and is the mental skills coach for D3 Multisport. He is co-author, with Craig Howie, of “The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes.”