5 Reasons Why Triathlons Will Make You a Better Runner

The spillover benefits for runners are lifelong, and runners should contemplate at least one triathlon.


Photo Nils Nilsen

The culture of triathlon embodies respect for endurance, perseverance and adaptation.  These are core values that will only make you a better runner and why you should contemplate committing to a triathlon.

The decision to commit to entering your first triathlon should never be taken lightly, yet often is. The longer the distances being contemplated, the more one should avoid rash decisions, especially if it is your inaugural triathlon. I’ve witnessed too many weak moments where “Saturday night exuberance” has resulted in entry forms being completed and monies paid for many shorter distance triathlons and even the occasional long distance race, but end in prolonged anxiety during the event build-up and frequent DNS classifications.

For those that do manage to front-up at the starting waves of the swim leg, the event often ends in disappointment and disillusionment with one’s finishing time, and quite often injury.

However, there are also those who are new to triathlon that fully embraces the commitment with due respect, put in the requisite effort in planning to achieve realistic targets and invest the hours of training to see them cross the finish line exhilarated.

The exuberance of first-time triathlon finishers makes the finishing area of any triathlon a positive place to mill about, full of inspiration, vindication, new belief and much relief. If you were able to capture motivation, happiness and achievement for future reference, you’d look to somehow bottle the finish line spirit of any triathlon.  It is this feeling that makes triathlons a fantastic pursuit for runners, as it arguably triples the need for planning, commitment, and sacrifice.

Completing any triathlon is a major athletic milestone achievement. The spillover benefits for runners are lifelong and WILL make to a better runner. 

Here are 5 reasons why runners should contemplate at least one triathlon:

  • Embracing Age and Effort

With the roots of triathlon culture being born out of longer distances, notably the iconic Ironman (3.8/180/42.2km) and its variations down to the popular and challenging Olympic Distance (1.5/40/10 km), it’s easy to find motivating videos and acts of extreme endeavour. Why is it that all triathlon documentaries inevitably profile human interest stories in addition to covering the professional athletes in the leading pack?  Well, it’s because the values of perseverance, grit and optimism are perhaps appreciated and equally present across the age groupers, an even amplified as the age bracket increases.  For the younger readers of this magazine that are not so familiar with triathlon history and spirit, try googling “Hawaii Ironman 1989 or “Dave Scott vs Mark Allen, Ironwars.” I’d challenge you to find a more inspiring (and crazy) source of motivation for your running; please email me if you find anything that comes close to this for inspiration.

  • Commitment

Serious runners understand the word “commitment.” Fanatical triathletes arguably redefine the “commitment scale”. By participating in any triathlon, you will need to plan to juggle your training plan given the three events. With at least one of the disciplines being a natural weaker leg (unless you are a gifted national level triathlete), your entry automatically means you are facing up to the weaker leg. Whilst this will cause inevitable anxiety in the build-up and training sessions and on event day, embracing opportunities for improving is an inherent part of a seasoned triathletes’ mindset. To juggle the extra two disciplines, triathletes will often train twice a day at times or go back-to-back (so-called “brick sessions”) to get sufficient training time in for each discipline. Even if it is only one short course triathlon you do in your life, the completion of such will allow you to draw on the occasion regarding commitment levels and addressing weaker areas. In a runners context, this is useful when you perhaps want to practice hills or perhaps the last three intervals of an eight interval set? Once you’ve been outside your natural comfort zone via a triathlon, you know you can survive and go back there mentally.

  • Optimism & Optimisation

Triathletes are an optimistic breed of athlete. I’m always energised by their enthusiasm around possibilities for improvement, and their willingness to chase those precious few seconds of improvement. Triathletes will look for even the smallest gains from all angles and often with an open wallet. It may be gear related and thus the rise of Newton shoes; swimming fins and power cranks for bicycles. It may be training related, thus the rise of heart rate monitors, cross-training programmes and brick-sessions. Then there is the early adoption of (outlandishly coloured) compression garments, awareness around nutrition on the move (powerbars and gels), the popularity of aero bars and carbon fibre to the now widespread use of sunglasses when distance running – all arguably popularised by triathletes in their search for comfort, energy preservation and speed.

Thus by entering the world of triathlon, a runner will get exposure to this “optimisation” attitude, which is present in elite runners, but ubiquitously present with triathletes across the board. The “optimisation” and optimistic approach to improvement is a great trait for any long-term career. A willingness to experiment and try different ways is a sure source of keeping engaged and finding improvement.

  • Camaraderie

Triathletes in my experience tend to train with others where possible – the camaraderie of triathlon is unique; it is friendly and engaging, perhaps born out of the knowledge that it is three times the commitment. Newcomers are always welcomed and experienced triathletes seem to always be approachable and keen to share tips on how to train and race better. There is a sisterhood/brotherhood that is clearly noticeable at the transition set-up area of any triathlon I’ve been to. It’s a shared respect amongst participants where there is unspoken knowledge that everyone at the starting line has made the commitment and is there to explore their limits, and a desire to redefine those limits. The more challenging the distances, the thicker the atmosphere. This camaraderie is unique to the triathlon family. For runners, it can serve as a source of example and inspiration as to how setting and training for a challenging goal can invigorate our love of a sport. Sharing that love with fellow athletes and the running community is perhaps something runners can do more of, rather than worrying about goodie bags and t-shirt sizes.

  • A Process Approach to Improvement

Triathlon training and participation lends itself to a process orientated approach in achieving goals. This is a function of the need to manage change and develop diverse athletic skills due to the variety of three disciplines and two transitions. The added risk factor for some events of an open water swim and hilly cycle routes provides further incentive for athletes to plan for variable conditions. The equipment requirements and prospect of having to deal with a flat tyre and rely on mechanical co-operation add to the multitude of variables that the triathlete needs to prepare for. The knock-on effects of unwise pacing across the disciplines is a final factor. Whilst seasoned distance runners tackle the goal of a negative split run, triathletes become sharp mathematicians on the move, as they extrapolate perhaps, a slower than expected swim time into the remaining legs and transitions as they try to adjust race plans to meet revised or original goals.

The triathlon equation is considerably more complex with its multiple variables, and this needs to constantly monitor effort, feelings and recalculate targets translates to more precise planning and monitoring for subsequent running only events. Triathletes are concerned with order (especially in the transition zone), and value energy efficiency in technique and their tools of trade, with a view to sustainable process and performance, values which translate well to a running-only domain.

  • Return on Investment

There is nothing more enlivening than the confident prospect that you can improve on what you just did. This optimism about one’s potential being unexplored and an immediate thirst for the next event is the culture of triathlon. By entering your first triathlon, or another one, you’ll only improve your running ability and potential.

David Ng is a 1991 Australian Ironman finisher who often calls on the triathlon days for the motivation to meet his running challenges and goals.



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