Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Have you ever considered why you may not reach the same levels of performance as say Nicola Spirig or Daniela Ryf? You may put it down to not training hard enough or not having the time to put in that much effort. In fact. It may not be your fault.
In general, there are two categories of triathletes that perform at the highest level: the genetically talented or gifted athlete and the athlete with a highly developed capacity to train and a specific training program guiding them.
When athletes perform at the top level they often attribute their success to superior coaching, access to a great training environment or beginning training at a young age. Could their success be attributed to underlying biological predispositions? Genetic traits are thought to account for up to half the variation in performance and the other half in the athletes response to training.
These genetic qualities are not only the inherited characteristics of their parents such as height and arm length, leg length etc, but also muscle fibre type (fast and slow twitch muscle fibres) and the capacity to attain high levels of fitness (maximal oxygen uptake) or inherited cardiovascular traits.
From this perspective, whether you will make a champion or not, is governed by: a) The type of mix in your anatomical, physiological and behavioural characteristics that you were born with; b) Proper training, rest and nutrition, and c) The ability of those inherited characteristics to adapt to the training, rest and nutrition.
Other factors that may affect performance include the trainability of the athlete. There are some people who are what we call “non responders”, who have great difficulty to improve in sport and of course never attain any high performance levels but still find it enjoyable to train and compete. Neuromuscular activity and biomechanics (skill) plays a part in the sport of triathlon but not to the same extent as in single sports. The nature of triathlon does not require perfect skill development. The swim, being in open water and in a group situation does not require a perfect swim stroke to perform well. The bike can be in draft legal or illegal format and does not require the same level of skill as an Olympic cyclist. The run is decided by who is the fastest after the swim and bike, not necessarily the runner with the fastest run time trial. It is often determined by the strongest, fittest runner.
Probably one of the most important factors in producing a high performing athlete is to find individuals who are highly motivated and are likely to persist over the long duration required to produce a champion.
Training over a long period can vary between individuals but could span between 10-15 years. This could be the initial learning of fundamentals of the sport; the building of performance power and capacity; and the reaching of an international level. Once the athlete has reached this level of performance, it is not uncommon that another 6-8 years of competitive experience may be needed to achieve consistent world class rankings.
So taking into account all of the above, there are also the psychological factors. This includes the ability to tolerate pain and fatigue and also dedication and diligence to train and race at such a high level. Other psychological factors that are important include motivation, aggression, focus, the ability to sustain effort, attitudes toward winning and losing, the ability to cope with anxiety and stress, management of distractions, capacity to relax and of course, coach-ability.
Coach-ability encompasses not only following a specific training program but also being tenacious, conscientious, and demonstrating a perseverance and readiness to perform. That is what you need to bring to the table if you wish to improve and succeed in this sport.
Unfortunately there is little that can be done about changing your genetic make up, you will have to live with that, but those people with a highly developed work ethic and a successful system of coaching that is guiding their efforts have a better chance of reaching their true potential.
Main photo: Marc Derron