What I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a Pro Triathlete (from 14 of them!)

1. Katie Zafares - 2016 Rio Olympian

I wish I'd known that the competitors I raced against were just normal people. I think I felt like because they were professionals or Olympians or had the best equipment that they were like superheroes or something. I was intimidated by the people I was racing against and felt like they were superior to me. Once I got a bit into racing I realized they are all just normal people who are fun, and also have different strengths, weaknesses and quarks about them. I became friends with most everyone on the circuit and it makes going to races so much more enjoyable. I enjoy seeing the athletes who I'm fighting to the finish with. I no longer fear them but rather respect them as competitors.


2. Tommy Zafares - Elite Triathlete & Triathlon Photographer

Before becoming a pro triathlete I wish I had known that balancing working out insanely hard and recovering properly was going to be much more challenging than I thought. Coming from a swimming background I was used to training like a mad man day in and day out because my body could handle it, but in triathlon you have to be sure to take your easy days EASY to maintain consistency in training. It's all about building up that base and maintaining it for an entire season, not going as hard and as fast as you can all the time.

3. Kim Schwabenbauer - Professional Long Distance Triathlete

I think the answer to what I wish I known before becoming a pro is just how meticulous you have to be about revolving your life around it to really do it well.  Over the years, I learned what discipline was required and how it would impact the lives of so many of those around me, in that their ability to work around my needs would also require their sacrifice.  I wish I could have had a talk with myself about making sure I saw the bigger picture of not just one race, but years of successful racing, on the horizon if I built my body, my season and my relationships in the right way.  It was often that I was so focused on the next closest race and the training and intensity needs of that race sometimes overshadowed the long term plan and insight into what would have made for a better season.  I also wish I could have explained that no really REALLY cared how I did those first couple years.  Honestly, people are busy!  They don't give a true #@$# to be honest!  They just wanted me to be happy.  The amount of pressure I put on myself was not necessary.  My DNF at Lake Placid, my first pro Ironman, was much harder on me because I was so into my own head and thoughts wondering if I even deserved to be a pro.  I could have chalked that one up and moved on much faster if I just realized that frankly, no one cares (that much).  Your friends and family care, but like I mentioned, just that you are happy, that's all!

Finally, I wish I would have allowed myself to enjoy it all a little more. I was nose to the grindstone 24/7 and when I traveled, I was a tyrant about my special food or schedule.  I definitely could have loosened up a bit and still enjoyed the experience in those beginning years.  As time went on, I got better at allowing for a bit of risk and a better overall experience for myself and those who traveled with me to stay and see the sights, enjoy the local food and meeting new people.  By the time I hit Taiwan, Coeur d'Alene and Chattanooga Ironmans in 2015, I had it down.  I sucked the life out of every experience and made memories that I cherish almost more than the race itself.  I'd found a way to relax into each race experience and it made me a better athletes, but also a better person to be around!

4. Jarrod Shoemaker - 2008 Triathlete Olympian

When you get asked "What I wish I had known before becoming a pro triathlete," a lot of things come to mind, from how hard the training is, to the lack of an offseason, to the crazy travel, to the up and down sponsorship scene, to the joy of completing and winning big races. Personally, I relish in the hard work and love seeing how hard I can push myself and what my limits are, so for me that is not a problem. My wife, Alicia Kaye, would say that the hardest thing is not being able to be a normal human, training and racing takes priority over friend's weddings and travel to see family over the summer. However, I would say that it is the insecurity of sponsorships and income. While you can race and train as hard as you want, you still have to perform and earn money. Being an athlete has become more than just being an athlete, and now involves being your own marketing team, social media team, and promotional team! Sponsors and races are both looking for athletes who interact with fans, but unlike the major league sports where that is mainly done through the league or team you play for, in triathlon it is done by us the athletes. We have to learn to engage and promote ourselves. In the end I would say that being an athlete needs to come with a business degree now!


5. Summer Cook - Elite Triathlete

I didn't truly understand the role rest and recovery played in athletic performance before becoming a professional triathlete. As a competitive swimmer from ages 9-21, I suffered from frequent colds and sinus infections and could never quite figure out why. While it is true that I had extensive obligations outside of trainnig (classes, etc.), what I wasn't doing was listening to my body when it told me to rest. In college I operated from 5am - 9pm without any real breaks on a daily basis. I would never miss training, even if I was too sick to make it through warm up without coughing. I thought training and racing when I was sick, injured, or under extreme fatigue was a sign of toughness. I was always operating between 40-70%. It wasn't until I started competing professionally that coaches started talking to me about recovery. Now, if I feel run down I opt to rest a day instead of battling through it. With the exception of the rare bug, I'm often at 80-90% and able to get more out of myself on a day to day basis which equals better results in the long run.

6. Erin Broderick

Honestly, I think the exciting part about the journey of being a professional athlete has been the not knowing. I have learned so many important lessons along the way, but I believe that they only could be learned by doing. Ive had so many great coaches and athletes give me great advice along the way, but the most important things I have discovered during my career have been from within.

7. Jon Fecik

I knew that I wanted to be a professional triathlete at 18 years old. I was nowhere near the highest talent, but I knew that I could work hard and train consistently for a long time. Not everyone can do that. I set a goal to qualify as a pro in 6 years and it took me 7. What I realize now is that, for me, I don’t get better all at once. It takes time to learn how to train, to learn how to race, and finally to learn how to win. On top of that, it takes time to develop the body to the point that it can sustain a fast pace for a long time. Further, it takes time to gain the support of family, friends, and sponsors. The key is only looking as far as the next baby step instead of thinking about how to become a world champion overnight. What I wish I’d known is that it would take longer than expected to get to a high level of racing. Year longer. You have to set yourself up for the long haul if you want to achieve something great in the sport.

8. Erin Storie

I wish I would’ve learned patience from my younger professional self. I was in such a hurry to be the best and to compete with the best, I wanted to show the world I was ready after year 1, but in reality I wasn’t. I had a lot to learn on the professional side. I wanted to travel to all the races. I should’ve looked at triathlon as a lifestyle spanning from 4 years, to 8 years, or even a life time. When I rushed, I would miss out on the fun side of things, I got injured, I didn’t learn all the fundamentals of the sport. I wish I would’ve enjoyed those times of being U23, before the pressure was on being a full time triathlete. So have fun with it!

9. Matt Chrabot

The biggest piece of advice I tend to give younger athletes is to swim with swimmers, ride with cyclists, run with runners, and race the triathletes. By specifically focusing on the individual events with the specialists, it's much easier to become a better triathlete in the end. For example, I do a hard 2-4 hour group ride with professional level cyclists on Saturday after my swim workout. On Sundays I like to run with elite runners for my long run. By training with the specialists, I find it easier for me to concentrate on the "right here and now" and not "going easy on the bike to get ready for the run."

10. Ben Kanute - 2016 Summer Olympian

When I first started as a professional triathlete, I had actually been told throughout my junior career some very good advice that I wish I had taken more to heart. My dad always told me that “there will always be another (and a lot of the time more important) race.” I always treated each race like it would define my entire career. While it is important to take each race seriously, putting a lot of emphasis on the result is not conducive to a good performance. Chances are that the result (good or bad) will not be remembered after the next race anyway. There are a lot of ups and downs throughout your career so it is important to look at the big picture and not just one result. Do not always be so hard on yourself after a poor performance. Very few people race every race well, even though we all strive for that. It is important to learn from these, and move on to the next one.

11. Chris Ganter

The number one thing I wish I knew before becoming a professional athlete was how to train like a true professional athlete.  True professionals (the ones you see winning enough races and garnering enough sponsorship money to actually make a living) are training like savages, and putting in many more hours than someone with a job could handle.  By definition, there is no “plan B” (coaching e.g.) for a true professional triathlete.  Otherwise, they’d be a professional coach/athlete or athlete/barista.  They average up to 35 hours a week of focused work for months on end and don’t really have a true “off season”.  That doesn’t sound like a lot of training, but once you factor in fueling, preparation, logistics, cleaning up, refueling, recovery… it’s a 24/7 job.  It’s an exhausting existence and you have to REALLY LOVE the sport and the people in it to avoid burn out.  I spun my wheels for too many years early in my pro career training just as I did as an amateur.  Learning how true professionals trained was eye opening and pushed my fitness to a new level.  But once I learned how true professionals train, there was a new world of things to learn to manage that type of training regimen.

12. Mary Beth Ellis

As an athlete, I thought my job was to do the training and shut up. I didn’t realize that giving detailed feedback, not just the data but also qualitative analysis of how I honestly felt, would help not only me but my coach. I think many athletes fall into this trap. They either only provide their coach with factual data on the workout or even worse give zero feedback at all. As a coach, it is hard to know exactly what your athlete is doing and how they are progressing with no feedback to review. The best tool your coach has is the athlete’s response to training and this is what truly will make the relationship successful. The best training plan in the world can fail if the communication is lacking.

13. Sarah True - 2016 Summer Olympian

The biggest thing that I wish that I knew before becoming a pro triathlete is how to prioritize workouts. It's easy to fall into the trap of going pretty hard all of the time in the three sports. While you can handle the load for a short period of time, it tends to catch up with you in the form of injury, illness, overtraining or underperforming at races. It's only through making our hard sessions genuinely hard and getting adequate recovery can we make the gains that lead to improvement and good results. I wish that I had learned to respect recovery more and polarize my training earlier in my career.

14. Lindsey Jerdonek

Developing into a professional triathlete showed me that no single training session or race defines me, when I look at my experiences on the whole. I wish I had that bigger picture perspective earlier in my career. Back then, I would place too much importance on workouts and races—in particular, ones that I believed I “failed”—when in reality, each one is a building block of the learning process. That ability to detach from the small stuff does not come naturally to me. It takes training, too. I may not have even listened to my advice when starting out! Some things are worth learning along the way.