The Winning Habits of Elite Triathletes

All too often I hear triathletes talking about elite triathletes as “genetic wonders”, “naturally talented”, or any number of other classifications that only serve to isolate them from the rest of the pack. While it’s true that there are a few things that separate elite athletes from the middle and back of packers in triathlon, genetics is rarely one of them.


Okay, yes, I’ll admit it, we all have that one friend who can jump into anything athletic and excel without much work. That’s genetics. The debate goes on as to how much genetics plays a role in athletic performance, but one thing is certain: in 99.9% of cases, you don’t need genetics to perform well in triathlon. In fact, you can destroy the field of “naturally talented” athletes with the right kind of work, a proper mindset, and a few healthy habits. As a few high level athletes, including Kevin Durant and Connor Dwyer are credited with saying, “hard work trumps talent when talent fails to work hard.”


I take this to mean that hard work is much more valuable in the grand scheme of things than genetics or talent alone. To add to that, hard work, along with the habits listed below that anyone can practice, can outpace talent and genetics, bridging the gap and taking genetics off the table as an advantage.


This has been my experience in practice. It has also been what I’ve learned from a multitude of triathletes I have come to know in the elite ranks; athletes who never started as “superstars”, and perhaps even lived lives on the exact opposite end of the spectrum (myself included), but put in the work and became exceptional.


Here are some common habits I have seen in the elite ranks of triathlon, traits that I have witnessed in many, many athletes who continue to produce exceptional results despite not having the natural talent.


  1. They are consistent – A proper training cycle works for a reason. Within the months and weeks leading up to an important race, there is a period of base building, a peak phase, and a taper. Within those phases, each week has specific training focus – build, deload, endurance, speed, or any combination therein. With frequent schedule changes, missed workouts, or non-scheduled “hero mode” workouts (you know the type, the workouts where an athlete tries to break a record or achieve a crazy distance/time goal, like a double century on a recovery day), the body will not effectively adapt to the training. It will “miss the boat”, so to speak, of the focus of the macro/micro-cycles. In these cases, athletes can arrive at race day overworked or underprepared. Consistently following an effective training plan on the other hand – many times over a period of a few years – builds fitness, endurance, strength, and speed at surprising levels. There’s no magic to it. It all comes down to showing up and doing the right amount of work at the right time.
  2. They are purposeful – Every workout should have a purpose. If there isn’t a purpose for a workout, then it’s a waste of time. Sometimes it can be harmful if we do workouts without a purpose because it’s time we should be spending in rest or recovery. There are many different purposes for workouts, including endurance building, recovery, speed, testing nutrition, race simulation, mental training, etc. Elite athletes understand the purpose behind every workout that they do. If they don’t have a reason to do a workout, they will recover, or do something else. No junk miles. They understand that each workout has it’s place in the bigger picture. It is a piece in the puzzle toward a long term goal. For that reason, they know the vital concepts behind each workout, and focus intently on that purpose in practice.
  3. They know their bodies – Every person has differences in terms of how they tolerate and adapt to training/diet inputs. There is no single secret formula that works for everyone, but there is an individual secret formula for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding it. This requires learning about and understanding your body. It includes everything from knowing what foods your body thrives on (hint: it’s not Oreos), what type of training works for you, how much recovery you need, as well as your emotional/psychological requirements. Elite athletes know their bodies well, and they leverage this knowledge to apply the training that works for them to their overall success.
  4. They have faith in themselves – Not just the faith that they can complete the triathlon, but absolute certainty that they have what it takes to become the best in their class. This is what makes them extraordinary. Even if they have not yet produced the results to back the claim, they sincerely believe they have the ability to achieve them. They are certain that they can produce those results with the right kind of work. They know that they can win the race or become a world champion. On the other hand, many others will set limits in their own minds. I hear it all too often from the age group ranks, “I could never be that fast”, “those people are in another class”, or any number of phrases that serve to build an impenetrable wall between themselves from the elite racers. In reality however, any one of us has the ability to become one of the best in our class. After all, we all share a common bond; we all started with a single step.
  5. They have patience – Elite triathletes understand that fitness gains, especially at the tip of the spear, don’t always happen overnight. They take time and patience, sometimes many weeks, months, and even years. BUT when they do happen, their training and racing moves to an entirely new level. Achieving this takes patience. It takes doing the work day in and day out (with consistency). It takes doing the majority of the work at annoyingly easy paces so that the other 10% of the work can be done REALLY hard. The results come sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they do come with patience and consistency.
  6. They treat nutrition as the “first discipline” – Those in the elite ranks are aware that their physical performance is only as good as the food that they are putting in their bodies. They know that what they eat has a direct effect on their performance. Therefore, they eat only food that can enhance their performance. This is highly individual of course, but the key is learning about and knowing what works and what doesn’t. This takes adapting through trial and error.
  7. They make training and racing a priority – Does this mean that they neglect their families, work, and social life and devote all of their time to the religion of triathlon? Absolutely not! On the contrary, many elite triathletes I know are some of the best fathers/mothers, and most productive people I know. How do they find time to be great family people, great at their jobs, AND excel in triathlon? They get creative. Because they prioritize health and fitness, they know that they will have to manage their time effectively in order to make the most out of their training, family, and work life. Sometimes that means waking up before the sunrise, but more importantly it means finding solutions to the time management puzzle. This may include working while on the trainer, using lunch breaks to take a quick run, prepping all your food for the week, incorporating family time into training time, commuting to work on the bike, etc. The fact is that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. If you truly prioritize your training, you will find creative solutions instead of excuses.
  8. They know how to recover – We all know that recovery is important to triathlon training, but more often than not this philosophy is spoken and not practiced. People with “A” type personalities want to push through the pain or exhaustion to get as much training as possible, when instead they should be spending some of that time getting a massage, taking an Epsom salt bath, sitting in recovery boots, or sleeping in. We, as a culture, praise the idea of getting up early, and surviving on little sleep, even though it’s not good for us. Elite triathletes understand that it is not during training that fitness gains occur, it is during recovery.
The great thing about all of these habits is that they can be adopted by anyone. Part of the learning process in this sport should be educating oneself to develop winning habits such as those above, to perform at the very best. These are just a few of the habits practiced by elite triathletes, and they make a tremendous difference in long-term performance.


Happy training!
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