From Pumped Up to Giving Up: 7 Stages of Motivation for Triathletes

Pre-race day swim in Lake Tahoe

Yesterday, I completed my 6th triathlon in two years (Lake Tahoe XTERRA). The first of these (Laguna Beach XTERRA), I signed up only four weeks prior to the race as a bit of a dare to myself to see if I could figure out how to do it.

While I am by no means a great athlete in the world of triathletes, I am continuously motivated to sign up for more races, which puzzles me at times. Particularly as I stress out as the race approaches.

It has led me to a bit of a theory I’m calling the Race Motivation Lifecycle (RML), particularly for amateur age-grouper athletes. I’m very interested to see if this is something that others go through.

Here’s how it has gone down for me:

In April of last year, I completed an 8HR mountain bike race (BOGGS) as a casual day with friends (as casual as 8HRs of mountain biking can be). Each lap took just over an hour and was accompanied by a trail side party station that handed me a strip of bacon and whiskey shot on each lap. Needless to say, I wasn’t in that much of a rush as I also took a good 10–15 minute break to eat some oranges and bananas and rest the legs after each lap.

I came back from the race invigorated though and inspired to sign up for another one. This Post-race High is what led me to sign up for my first triathlon (4 weeks later) in Laguna Beach. Little did I know this would send me on a spiral of events over the next couple of years.

As a casual/average age-grouper athlete, these are the 7 stages of motivation I’ve experienced for almost every race:

1. Race & Training Excitement

Shortly after signing up for a new race, I get very excited about doing the race and kicking off some new training plans. I get a bit overly ambitious about the actual amount of training I’ll be able to do, but I’m excited to hit the pool, bike or run. I might buy some new gear. I often schedule out specifically the first 2–3 weeks of training in my calendar (this is where I am right now btw as I approach my first half ironman).

Motivation: VERY HIGH

2. Training Slog

Depending on how long it is until the race, my training often slows down, I fall of the wagon a bit and deviate from my initially ambitious schedule. This may be because of work, friends, travel, family or other things that are also great priorities in life. They just can make it difficult to stick to a training schedule.

Motivation: MEDIUM

3. Training Panic

As a race approaches, I often quickly realize that I haven’t trained nearly enough and that it’s time to turn it up for the final 2–3 weeks before the race. This panic gives me a rush of motivation to train harder and more consistently as the race date approaches.

Motivation: HIGH

4. Race Anxiety

One of the most difficult periods is 1–2 days out from race day, when I know there is nothing really more I can do to improve my race, but there are lots of things you can do to harm it. In other words, things like food, sleep, drinks, all play heavily into the game at this stage. At least I convince myself that they do. To be honest, this period is probably the worst as it is filled with what-if’s with no real bearing on anything. You can’t resolve anything without just going out there and racing.

Motivation: LOW

5. Race Highs & Lows

Then comes the race. I find that once I’m up and ready to go, I gain a burst of motivation and excitement about what’s ahead. There is nothing left to do, but just go out there and do my best. Then comes the rollercoaster of HIGHs & LOWs that is the race itself.

Here’s how my latest race went down in the Lake Tahoe XTERRA Triathlon.

SWIM:

  • HIGH! Bolted out front to start, highly motivated to get in front of the pack, so I don’t get booted in the face (as I have in the past).
  • LOW. Tired after the first several 100 metres and wondered why in the world I’m doing this. Many swimmers pass me and I assume my position in the back half of the pack.
  • HIGH! Once I got in my groove, after about the first 750m, I started passing people again and felt like I could just keep swimming… but am still back in the pack.
  • LOW. Running half a mile out of the water to get to the bike, when all I want to do is just BE on the bike.

BIKE:

  • HIGH! Getting on to the bike. Awwww. So fast, so fun, so good. I’m a lot faster on the bike and on climbs than anything else, so it is VERY encouraging to pass people that passed me during the swim. I motivate myself during the bike by counting the number of people I pass.
  • LOW. As I approached about 2 hrs on the bike and I was still doing absurd climbing, my body started to say NO. My biggest motivation was that I knew the downhill was coming!
  • HIGH! The downhill on the bike is always relatively good for me. I’m not fast by normal DH standards, but I am fast in Triathlon DH standards. Many of the other athletes don’t spend a lot of time barreling over rocks as fast as possible, so I normally end up bolting by people here.

RUN:

  • LOW. This could be perhaps the biggest low of the entire race. As I got off the bike and began running, I actually felt like I should just stop. WHY AM I DOING THIS? I’m exhausted, and the last thing I want to do is run 10k. This low carried on for at least the first 4k, until I got into a bit of a rhythm. I’m going to be honest though, I never really got to a high in the run until the last km
  • HIGH! With only a km left, it’s hard not to be excited about finishing. The finish line is in sight and it’s just a matter of turning it on for a few more minutes. Then, it’s DONE! The HIGH is huge at this stage when I actually cross the finish line.

6. Post-Race Hangover

Depending on the race, this state has varied from a few minutes to a few hours. This is the stage where I’m just so tired and exhausted that I don’t want to do anything else. I’m upset if I didn’t place as well as I’d liked or I’m just so tired that I don’t care. It is normally cured quickly by some watermelon and beer.

Motivation: MEDIUM-LOW

7. Post-Race High

This is when I go from a state of despair to a state of overwhelming motivation. Hours after checking results from the previous race, I can’t help but think about how I can do better, what new races can I sign up for? What new gear can I buy? How can I do better? It’s during this stage that my motivation is at its highest and I feel like I want to be better, faster, stronger. Which is crazy, given two days prior all I wanted to do was not sign up for another one.

Motivation: VERY HIGH

So, then the cycle begins again. Ironman70.3 Santa Cruz is next on Sept 11…


Thoughts? Do you experience this? Very interested to hear if others can relate.

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