Balancing professional sport and academia — a story of an unlikely journey

Flora Colledge
May 22, 2019 · 5 min read
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Winning the Swissman Xtreme Triathlon in 2018, with colleague and friend René Schilling. Photo: Heiko Rodde

“Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” You might agree that there’s a lot of truth to these words. But what happens when you find two jobs that you love? Can you really excel at either, let alone both? For the last few years, I’ve combined training for triathlon with my postdoc work at the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel. In January 2019, I earned my professional triathlon license and increased my work to 80%.

I am extremely focused on my training — and I carry out research in the field of exercise addiction. Is it really a behavioral addiction, what are the symptoms, who is affected? These questions are all still open, and it’s exciting to be working on a new area that combines sport science with psychology.

The obvious question is always whether I think I am addicted to exercise — no, not at all! An addiction is a negative and troubling disorder and often affected people feel they can’t stop what they’re doing, even when they are seriously ill or injured. These are not things that I experience — I enjoy hard training, but also know how to give my body time to recover. I would never push through a serious illness or injury, and although I train for at least three hours a day, I have learned how to find a healthy balance between athletics and work.

How do I fit everything in and still remain healthy? My work time is often quite flexible, so generally, I can plan when I will train, and when I will focus on research work, and take each day at a time. However, sometimes plans can change, or meetings can come up, and then I have to be flexible and make the best out of it. In these moments, I ask myself: Can I do the training later? Can I make the session shorter by just focusing on the intense parts? If you focus on what you can control, it is easier to stay calm.

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Photo: Heiko Rodde

Holding the line

It took me five years, from the day I did my first triathlon at age 27, to qualify for a pro license. For me, the key was finding one coach I trusted absolutely, and never wavering from the plan he sets for me. Every day, people try to tell me, if you swam like this you’d get faster, if you trained like that you’d be better. Completely ignoring these influences and focusing on training as well as I can, each day, is the most important thing I do to improve. In our training group, we call it “holding the line.”

To keep up this level of activity day after day obviously requires a good fueling and recovery strategy. Because I get up at 5 AM during the week, this means being strict about going to bed soon after 8 PM to get in eight hours of sleep. I also take the time every day to cook extra food and pack snacks and meals to have with me throughout the day, so I never have to train hungry. My rucksack typically has about five different Tupperwares in it, next to some damp swimming kit and running shoes. I don’t follow a particular diet and eat almost anything. The majority of my diet is healthy foods such as raw fruit and vegetables, meat and potatoes; however, when you are training hard, you perform better with sugar, so I have plenty of chances to enjoy sweet snacks like chocolate.

Commitment and reward

Balancing a challenging academic job with a professional triathlon career doesn’t leave much time for other activities — but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. My friends understand my schedule, and many of them are with me on long races, supporting me with food, drinks and encouragement. Needless to say, there are times, like when the alarm goes at 5 AM on a Saturday in the middle of winter, that the motivation isn’t always high. But through triathlon, I have had the chance to travel to beautiful countries, win races, and be part of a team of inspirational athletes managed by Daniela Ryf, the four-time Ironman World Champion. These are incredible experiences that I would never trade for an extra hour in bed in the morning.

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Interview prior to first professional race in Mallorca. Photo: Janosch Abel

My research work is fulfilling on its own, but it has the added benefit that I am comfortable expressing myself in writing, and in public speaking. This is particularly useful for the non-active part of a triathlon career that can involve interviews and updating social media. I am active on Instagram and Facebook, and this helps me stay in touch with friends, other athletes, and promote the sponsors who support me.

Would I be a better athlete if I didn’t work, a better researcher if I didn’t race professionally? I honestly think the answer is no. I need both sides to balance each other, and help me switch off. When I’m at work, I don’t have time to get lethargic or worry about a bad training session — and when work is difficult, I can focus on something completely different and come back with a new perspective.

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The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and has a history of success going back over 550 years. Learn more

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